Dec. 1, 2006

Canada’s Arctic sovereignty on thin ice

What’s going on in Canada’s Arctic has global impact.

Climate change has led to a thinning of the ice cover and the implications are diverse and far-reaching — affecting the environment, people, safety, international commerce and Canadian sovereignty.

“We ignore this at our peril,” says Dr. Rob Huebert, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary and associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies (CMSS).

“There are worldwide implications to the changes occuring in the Arctic.”

Huebert’s research confirms climate change in the Arctic is a serious challenge to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty and security. He shares his findings with the Department of National Defence, as well as with a broad audience through articles, papers and speaking engagements. Recently, he represented the CMSS and the U of C as a keynote speaker at the Northern Security Policy symposium in Ottawa.

If thinning of the ice cover in the Northwest Passage continues, international commercial shipping will become more viable. With increased international shipping comes an escalating challenge to maintain Canadian sovereignty over the passage as the costs of surveillance and enforcement would significantly increase.

That the Inuit are already feeling the impact of climate change in Canada’s Arctic is well documented. As the region heats up, changes in animal migration and hunting patterns are becoming apparent. The polar bear population in the Hudson Bay area has become smaller. This is attributed to the melting of the ice cover, which makes it more difficult for the bears to hunt seals. Inuit are finding their traditional way of life eroded by the changes occurring in their environment; traditional hunting and trapping will be further affected by the passage of large vessels if the Northwest Passage opens up. But other potential impacts, less well known, also have serious implications for Canada.

Organized crime, already known to have some foothold in Canada’s north, may increase. Terrorists may view a more accessible north as a viable route for illegal entry into North America. Increased shipping, while bringing potential economic benefit to the region, also brings risk of pollutants and other environmental problems to local ecosystems.

The Arctic as ‘laboratory’ demonstrates worldwide implications

“We cannot view what’s happening in Canada’s Arctic as an isolated experience,” says Huebert. “Our world will alter, triggered by global climate change. There are environmental implications, obviously, as well as political, cultural, health, safety and economic repercussions. Canadians should recognize global climate change as a huge issue that affects us all and must be addressed by our governments, enforcement agencies, scientists and our business leaders.”