Pandora’s Box

Traveling from an East Asian sea port, like Busan, South Korea to a European one like Rotterdam would take the average European cargo ship about 45 to 60 days- a journey that would circumvent all of Asia and Europe, passing through the Suez canal. Moreover, for such a journey, with an assumed speed of about twenty knots, traveling the 12000 nautical miles between these two ports would consume about 5000 tons of fuel. Not only does this cost a fortune, it also causes severe damage to our environment – increasing the rate of global warming and upping global smog levels. What if there was a shorter way, one that could effectively cut distance, time, cost and the carbon footprint of this journey? Introducing the fabled North-West passage.

In fact, this passage remained a myth until the year 1906, when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first to traverse this passage over the course of three years. Further successful attempts by Henry Larsen in 1940 and Willy de Roos in 1970 opened up a whole world of opportunities for further traders. However, this passageway remained seasonally open and difficult to navigate even in the best of circumstances therefore using it as a commercial trade route remained unfeasible.

Eventually with the coming of the 21st century the world saw a rise in global temperatures, triggering a phenomenon we all know as global warming. This global warming saw a gradual melting of ice in the polar regions – leading to the complete opening of routes that hadn’t been easily accessible prior to the 21st century- namely, the northeast passage, the transpolar route and the northwest passage. Geographers predict that the northwest passage will be open to commercial use by the early 2030s – an event that would result in the reduction of thousands of miles of travel on major shipping routes. This would allow shipping companies to transport much larger ships in lesser time than the Panama Canal- the sea route that is currently in use- saving them millions of dollars in transportation. However, the opening of the north-western passage poses just as many problems as it does solutions.

One of these, a problem which has been a source of controversy since the journey of the SS Manhattan through this passage in 1969, is Canada’s claim to it. Since this strait passes through the Canadian archipelago, the Canadian government has claimed these waters as their own. They state that Canada reserves the right to decide which ships are granted transit through this strait and it can debar any vessel from traversing along the north-western passage. This is in stark disagreement with the United States of America and the European Union, who view this as more of a “transit passage”- where, although Canada retains the right to the resources, it can’t control which ships are allowed through. Inevitably, this has since led to conflict between Canada and the rest of the world.

One of the first instances of this conflict dates to 1985 when the US coast guard ship Polar sea passed through the strait en route from Greenland to Alaska. This infuriated the Canadian public despite the fact that the ship submitted to checking by Canadian officials. Tempers flared and a rift was formed between the United States and Canada. Later, in 2005, a fresh round of controversy was sparked when US nuclear submarines were alleged to have traveled through Canadian waters without any form of governmental approval. One of the first moves by Canadian prime Minister Stephen Harper as he was elected into office was to adopt a firm stance on the arctic issue, claiming that the strait was to be classified as Canadian internal waters and be referred to as such by all Canadian forces as of April 9th, 2006. In July 2007,Prime Minister Harper finally announced the building of a deep-water port in the far north, strengthening Canada’s position over the strait.

And it isn’t just the United States and Canada being affected by the opening of this passage. Consider the Russian Federation. After having planted a flag in the arctic seabed- claiming it as their own in 2007- they recently traversed this passage in an oil tanker between Norway and South Korea, taking just over 19 days. A similar journey over the Suez canal would have taken a significantly larger amount of time, marking this as the first of 15 such Russian expeditions. Even the Republic of China has laid eyes on the passage as it sees this as an amazing opportunity to minimize costs and hence increase revenue. Although neither of these countries have chosen a side in the ongoing conflict and hence could be persuaded in either direction, both have shown signs of inclination towards the United states/EU block.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, have a completely different take on the situation. They believe that we should focus on how the strait will impact nature, instead of who owns it. While on one side of the coin, the opening of the passage results in a newer shorter sea route that vastly reduces shipping distances and hence fuel; on the other we have a myriad of problems- from increased number and size of ships (leading to damaged ecosystems), oil spills, chemical leaks and general damage to flora and fauna caused by human activity. In fact, the opening of the passage itself can be discussed from an environmental standpoint as it points to increasing global warming and carbon emissions. With this multitude of problems surrounding this region, we can only hope that the powers involved take the right steps and think about the entire world community in any of their decisions, and plan for the years coming ahead.


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