Energy futureCanada's increasingly worried about Arctic vulnerabilities

Published 20 November 2007

The Arctic has immense oil reserves and mineral wealth, but Canada has been slow to protect its northern sovereignty; this becomes even more important as receding Arctic ice makes Canada’s northern frontier more accessible to uninvited guests

The Canadians have a new security concern: As global warming melts the ice along the edges of the Northern Pole, the country’s once impassable, impregnable northern frontier is becoming easier to breach. In 1998, Col. Pierre Leblanc, then commander of Canada’s northern forces, set up the Arctic Security Interdepartmental Working group. Representatives from the military, the RCMP, CSIS, Foreign Affairs, Revenue Canada, and Immigration meet biannually to assess Arctic security issues. The melting of the ice and the consequent opening up of arctic waterways, have seen more and more uninvited visitors come to nose around. The Toronto Star’s Ed Struzik writes that these unannounced visit have been conducted not only by the Russians and Chinese navies, but also by the U.S. Navy: In 2006 a U.S. submarine passed through or very near Canadian waters — no one in Canada knows for certain — was proof that Canada does not have control over the Arctic.Military and intelligence officials agree similar incidents are bound to increase as climatic changes in the Arctic make it easier to navigate through this part of the world.

The Alexandria, Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses, a private consultant to the U.S. government, warned earlier this year that geopolitical upheaval caused by climate change could create new havens for terrorists, trigger waves of illegal immigration, and disrupt oil supplies. In the center’s report, retired admiral Donald Pilling, the former vice-chief of U.S. naval operations, noted that neither Canada nor the United States has the military capability to handle threats in the Northwest Passage. “As the Arctic ice continues to recede, we’re going to see a lot more people and a lot more ships trying to get in,” agrees Rob Huebert, an Arctic expert at the Center for Military and Strategic Studies in Calgary. “Unless we’re prepared to prove that we can control what we claim, we’re going to be in for serious trouble.”

If Canadians needed to be reminded why something must be done soon, they should look at Russia’s recent planting of a territorial flag on the seabed at the North Pole and Imperial Oil and Exxon Mobil’s $585-million bid for development rights in the Beaufort Sea this summer. “It’s not just the Danes planting a flag on Hans Island,” Huebert says. “The Arctic is becoming a big-league playing field that’s destined to become a much busier place now that the ice is