Steve Haycox: As ice cap melts, Arctic claims start to blur

Steve Haycox

Global warming has been a hot topic this winter. The polar vortex of cold air poured into the central and eastern U.S., carried by a wandering jet stream, possibly a result of more exposed water and less sea ice having caused more rapid warming of the atmosphere over Alaska. The drought in California has led to serious water rationing, and at least one source has revived Wally Hickel's idea of transporting water from Alaska to that paradise. And in his State of the Union address, President Obama noted, "The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact."

Taking advantage of the retreat of Arctic sea ice, in September, the M.S. Nordic Orion, a bulk carrier operated by a Danish firm, became the first large freighter to navigate the Northwest Passage, carrying coking coal from Vancouver, B.C., to Pori, Finland (on the Gulf of Bothnia), lopping a thousand miles off the normal trip through the Panama Canal, and because of the fuel savings, carrying 25% more cargo. A Canadian icebreaker accompanied the Nordic Orion, and the ship carried a Canadian Arctic adviser most of the way, so clearly it's not yet a routine trip.

Still, every year seems to bring us a bit closer to regular traffic through the Prince of Wales Strait, the Parry Channel and Lancaster Sound, the traverse from the Beaufort Sea to Baffin Bay. But there are knotty challenges to be met other than dodging floating ice pans the size of Cuddy Park. Sourahb Gupta of Washington, D.C., and Prof. Ashok Roy of UAF wrote this month in Alaska Business Monthly about the diplomatic status of the channels in the Northwest Passage. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides that foreign vessels shall have an unimpeded right of "innocent passage" in straits used for international navigation. But the Convention also provides that nations have complete freedom to establish whatever conditions they wish in territorial waters. Are the straits in the Northwest Passage covered by the innocent passage doctrine, or are they Canadian territorial waters? At present, the United States and other nations hold for the former; the Canadians do not. The two have agreed to disagree. But sooner or later, cognizant bodies will have to speak on the issue. Such include not only individual nations, but also the Arctic Council, comprised of the U.S., Canada, Iceland, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. That body recently adopted a concord on Arctic search-and-rescue cooperation.

The status of Arctic waters has been an outstanding issue for some time. The Canadian government raised it during the under-ice voyage of the USS Nautilus to the North Pole on August 3, 1958. Canada has long claimed sovereignty over the Arctic Archipelago of Baffin, Ellesmere and Victoria Islands, and associated smaller islands and adjacent waters, a claim sometimes given the status of "historic rights," by virtue of Canada's use of those waters. The U.N. Convention, which came into force only in 1994, may or may not provide for recognition of such historic rights. Also, Canada has a long-standing disagreement with the U.S. regarding the extent and sovereignty of the continental shelf in the Beaufort Sea. Sohio Oil drilled the most expensive dry hole in history on the Beaufort OCS in 1982-83, before a moratorium, recently lifted, halted exploration there.

Sometimes, it's difficult to determine what might and might not be territorial waters and rights. Denmark is currently investigating whether a geologic structure in north Greenland might extend all the way through the Arctic Ocean to beyond the North Pole. At the level of U.S. states, Alaska spent 19 years in court fighting the federal government over whether Dinkum Sands, a sometimes visible shoal in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska's North Slope, is an island or not. If it's an island, Alaska can claim the subsurface rights to the area within the three-mile state limit around it. But the U.S. Supreme Court found that it's not an island, because it disappears beneath the ocean surface in the summer.

The diplomats will have some rough water to tread in sorting out these issues. In the end, Arctic economic development will surely triumph over them.

Steve Haycox is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Steve Haycox