Canada is moving to wrest back control of a swiftly changing North – or at least get a better handle on what’s going on in its icy waters.
Global warming and growing international interest in the melting Northwest Passage make it imperative, the federal government says in an online call for expressions of interest, to improve surveillance in territory Canada claims but knows little about.
The research arm of the Department of National Defence is investing $10-million from now through 2015 in a remote-controlled satellite surveillance project in the Barrow Strait, a small slice of the Northwest Passage through which most vessels pass on their way westward along that route.
The Northern Watch project was announced in 2007 and the first equipment set up the next year, only to be severely damaged by harsh weather conditions. Now, after several years of remediation and altering equipment to make it stand up better to Arctic conditions, Ottawa has put a call out for a company to build a system that researchers can control from Halifax and, eventually, set up to be entirely automated. It will send the signals to Defence Research and Development Canada's Atlantic section, which specializes in underwater photography.
“Right now, we don’t have any actual presence in the Arctic, except for where we have people living,” said Gary Geling, Defence Research and Development Canada’s lead scientist on the project.
“One of the things we really don’t have a good feel for right now is exactly where everything is. … This [new equipment]allows us to know who’s coming in.”
The system will include cameras mounted to a building on land, taking images of passing ships based on radar signals they receive. At the same time, underwater acoustic sensors will listen for anything making noise underwater, from a submarine to a whale.
Last month, divers prepared the area for installations of new equipment this summer. Then begins almost three years of testing, in which sensors and radar-satellite surveillance technology will be put through their paces to ensure they can operate up to 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The challenges to gathering high-quality data and sending it south are both weather-related – extreme cold, icebergs damaging equipment – and technical: The highly detailed images and audio files from the cameras and sensors create huge data files that will have to be compressed before they are sent to Halifax via satellite, Dr. Geling said.
Dr. Geling notes this system is meant to monitor traffic, not intercept or intervene.
“It’s more of a case of knowing what’s going on up there, basically. This gives us a picture of who’s coming into the waters, and then whatever needs to happen happens.”
In some ways, Canada’s playing catch-up: Ottawa’s charts of Arctic exploration are still inferior to those the former Soviet Union had three decades ago, University of British Columbia professor Michael Byers said. During the 1970s and 1980s, both U.S. and Soviet submarines would troll Arctic waters. They still do.
That said, “I don’t see a state threat in the Arctic,” Prof. Byers said. He thinks the money would be better spent on other things, including improving Northerners’ standard of living. “I would [also]cite search-and-rescue as an area of urgent concern, given the dramatic increase in commercial activity, which is inevitably going to lead to accidents. … I’m actually hopeful the Harper government has come to realize its priorities were misplaced.”