In 2016, a group of polar explorers made an astounding discovery in northern Canada. The long-lost HMS Terror, last seen almost 170 years previously when it headed the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin to find the fabled Northwest Passage, was itself discovered as an almost perfectly-preserved shipwreck near King William Island. The legend of Franklin’s expedition is compelling enough even without the find. The latest in a long line of explorers attempting to navigate the theorised maritime trade route running through the frozen archipelago at the northern tip of Canada, Franklin set out with cutting-edge technology to find the Passage and form the latest chapter in a British tradition of polar exploration. The expedition’s subsequent disappearance was never fully corroborated beyond the tales of Inuit hunters, and in 1997, analysis of bone material indicated the last surviving crewmembers had probably resorted to cannibalism .
But as the wreck of Franklin’s flagship finally gives up its secrets, the long history of the Northwest Passage may be about to enter a new age. The culprit is, of all things, the ever-present danger of global warming. Evidence shows that receding ice across the poles is opening up previously impassable areas in northern Canada, meaning that the elusive Northwest Passage may shortly become what the British continuously sought in North America: an economically viable trade route to the Pacific. Of course, this route has long been in operation through the Panama Canal, but the Northwest Passage is a game-changer nonetheless; the world’s busiest shipping lane may now have to contend with a much larger brother.
Research conducted by NASA shows that the Arctic sea ice is gradually and consistently thinning. Combined with runoff from glaciers elsewhere in the world, which warm and desalinate the Arctic waters, the navigability of the region is gradually increasing. In 1969, an expedition by the SS Manhattan, a reinforced cargo vessel, determined that the passage was not economically viable, leading to the construction of the Alaska Pipeline. But in 2014, the MV Nunavik defied these predictions to make a cargo trip unescorted through the Passage, furthering predictions that much of the route may soon be ice-free all year round.
The Panama Canal has to this point held a near-monopoly on shipping heading between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Its construction in 1902 was a largely American endeavour and as such the USA has maintained a strong economic and strategic presence there ever since, only ending its status as an unincorporated territory in 1979. Two-thirds of shipping to and from the US pass through the Canal, and the politics surrounding it evidences the importance of the emerging Northwest Passage. In recent years, however, Panama has seen a diversification of interests in line with heavy Chinese investment. The two countries are in the closing stages of a free trade agreement, and a Chinese attempt to construct a permanent Panamanian embassy was thwarted amid a diplomatic spat with Washington, indicating the strategic value of the waterway. The opening of the Northwest Passage both reflects and changes this, with similar interests being expressed. The USA is keen to gain an early lead in economic control of the area. However, the benefits for the USA in this sense may be illusory. Any development of the Northwest Passage would significantly undermine the strategic and economic potential of the Panama Canal, where the USA is by a considerable margin the established power. Indeed, the Passage could not only facilitate much of the trade that passes through Panama but also the deep-draught vessels that are currently incapable of navigating the Canal and are instead forced to take far longer and more costly routes.
The economic and political implications of a navigable polar trade route are far more widespread than the Passage itself. Firstly, there is the dispute which has arisen over its sovereignty. Canada argues the Passage falls within its territorial waters, but the European Union and USA claim it to be international. Both these bodies have a stake in the region; the USA through Alaska and the EU through Denmark and Greenland. Currently a Reagan-era agreement between Canada and the USA provides that American shipping be allowed access to the Passage on the condition that Canadian permission is asked first. However, the two states failed to settle the issue of legal sovereignty. As the dynamics of power alter in the post-Cold War era, more global players are entering Arctic diplomacy. Arctic trade depends to some extent on the sea lanes north of Russia, a country whose citizens also form the largest portion of habitation in the Arctic Circle. China has expressed considerable political interest in the region, declaring itself a ‘near Arctic state’, drawing the formerly localised Arctic question into global politics.
The benefits of a developed Northwest Passage are widespread, with shipping companies set to save money and even reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The USA would be able to establish shipping links between Alaska and the East Coast, making oil transportation more efficient. Chinese trade with North America and Europe would have an easier access route, leading to ambitions of a ‘Polar Silk Road’. Canada has the most to gain; if it is able to prove its legal sovereignty over the parts of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and indeed assert it, the country could gain a new position as a powerful player in global trade. A focus on northern Canada would also allow economic exploitation of the sparsely populated yet mineral-rich region, developing the huge potential of Canadian oil and connecting it to a thriving trade link in the Northwest Passage.
The race for the Northwest Passage is just one part of the rising tensions over Arctic politics. Control of the region’s trade and resources will be a powerful strategic weapon in a future where many other raw material stocks are rapidly depleting. Unprecedented economic gains for states like Canada could come at the expense of tribes like the Inuit, whose traditional way of life could come under threat with intense economic development of a previously uncultivated region. If the ice continues to recede, a new front looks set to open up in international politics, a literal ‘Cold War’ for economic and strategic hegemony over Polar economic potential. As global powers begin to look north, it may not be long before the icy graves of Sir John Franklin’s doomed crew are disturbed by the final realisation of the strategic artery they failed to find.
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