With the Northwest Passage opening up due to a changing climate and several nations challenging Canadian sovereignty over it, the importance of RADARSAT-2 in regards to Arctic sovereignty is obvious. Some argue that Canada’s resources are insufficient to the challenges posed by monitoring such a vast territory and enforcing Arctic sovereignty. The ability to monitor ships and map the presence and thickness of ice from space is a powerul and necessary complement to Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers, naval patrol vessels and helicopters available to intercept foreign vessels.
An open Northwest Passage offers a route between Asia and the Atlantic that is 7000 km shorter than the current route (via the Panama Canal), which would save time, fuel and the fees of the canal. Gordon O’Connor received a briefing in 2006, when he was Minister of National Defence, that said, “If the current rate of ice thinning continues, the Northwest Passage could be open to more regular navigation by 2015.” And a report for the U.S. Navy in 2001 predicted “within 5-10 years, the Northwest Passage will be open to non-ice-strengthened vessels for at least one month each summer.” (The report is available here as a PDF – footnote #6).
Canada claims the Northwest Passage as internal waters, having drawn ‘straight baselines’ (read Article 7 from Part 2 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) around the Arctic islands and insists the claim is consolidated by historic usage including occupation by the Inuit. This would make the waters subject to Canadian domestic laws. The United States, backed by several European Union countries, insists it is an ‘international strait’ (read Part 3 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), which would still maintain Canadian domestic law over the waters but would give foreign vessels a right of transit passage. A U.S. foreign relations document from 1970 stated, “We cannot accept the assertion of a Canadian claim that Arctic waters are internal waters of Canada … Such acceptance would jeopardize the freedom of navigation essential for United States naval activities worldwide.” So the real dispute between Canada and the U.S. is the ability for international navigation in the Northwest Passage.
In the past century only two vessels have passed through the Northwest Passage without Canada’s permission: the SS Manhattan, a modified supertanker owned by Humble Oil (now Exxon) which was the first commercial ship to cross the passage in 1969, and the USCGC Polar Sea, a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, in 1985. It is assumed that some submarine voyages have taken place but their covert nature deprives them of the ability to contribute to any claims under international law. Additional unauthorized transits would undermine the Canadian claim, but many say Canada is poorly equipped to prevent this from happening. The Canadian Coast Guard’s small fleet of icebreakers can not operate in the passage during the winter, and the bulk of Canadian military presence in the North comes from the Canadian Rangers, made up of 1400 part-time volunteers who live in 59 hamlets between Baffin Island and the Alaskan frontier.
RADARSAT-2 is a powerful and ideal tool to track suspect vessels entering the passage, including submarines which the satellite can reportedly track at shallow depths – which they would be while traversing the Northwest Passage.
Even so, Canada would not deny entry to one of its allies or to a reputable shipping company. As Pierre Trudeau said in 1969, “To close off those waters and to deny passage to all foreign vessels in the name of Canadian sovereignty … would be as senseless as placing barriers across the entrances of Halifax and Vancouver harbours.”
The recent interest in Arctic Sovereignty has two main influences. First, the previously discussed Northwest Passage and the related benefits to commercial shipping. Second and probably more important, the expected resources that the Arctic holds. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids may remain to be found in the Arctic…