Skip to main content

When William Baffin sailed past the entrance to a broad channel north of the island that now bears his name, little did the intrepid English navigator realize that it was the gateway to the very thing he was looking for: the fabled northwest passage to the riches of the Far East.

Four hundred years later, another European ship is headed for Lancaster Sound. It, too, is on a voyage of discovery, one designed to advance not only scientific knowledge but the cause of Canadian sovereignty.

The German research vessel Polarstern (Polar Star) has been enlisted by Natural Resources Canada (NRC) to conduct seismic testing of the Arctic seabed. Over the next two months, it will crisscross 5,500 kilometres, nearly 400 kilometres of it in the sound, collecting data and gaining a better understanding of what lies beneath the ocean floor.

At the same time, hundreds of kilometres to the west, Canadian scientists are working with counterparts from the United States on a similar mapping project. Two coast guard icebreakers, one from each nation, are exploring 21,000 square kilometres of the Beaufort Sea in a bid to settle once and for all where Alaska ends and the Northwest Territories begin.

And last week the flagship of Russia's polar fleet, the Academician Feodorov, left port in Archangel to spend 100 days conducting geological and seismological studies between Siberia and the North Pole as part of Moscow's drive to expand its territorial waters.

With just three years before the deadline set out by the United Nations Law of the Sea, the race to claim what lies below the ocean is clearly approaching the finish line.

Long a subject of heated debate, northern sovereignty has been especially touchy since the polar ice began to melt, making the Northwest Passage a potential conduit for international shipping. Which is why it was no laughing matter three years ago when the Academician Feodorov reached the North Pole and sent down a submersible carrying the deputy speaker of Russia's parliament to plant a flag on the bottom.

Yet the fight for national supremacy isn't why people who live in the path of the Polarstern went to court this week


Lined with steep ice-covered mountains and deep fjords, Lancaster Sound lies between Baffin Island and Devon Island, covering 40,000 square kilometres, more than twice the area of Lake Ontario.

Seemingly desolate to the untrained eye, it is, in fact, home to an unusual abundance of wildlife. Extensive polynyas - stretches of open water surrounded by sea ice - make the area so creature-friendly that it has come to be known as the Arctic Serengeti, inhabited by most of the world's narwhals and one-third of North America's belugas, as well as massive bowhead whales, an array of seals (ringed, bearded and harp), walruses, thick-billed murres (cousins of the long-vanished great auk) and one of the highest densities of polar bears in Canada.

This natural bounty has long sustained the Inuit, who look at the $200 the Northern Store charges for a turkey no bigger than a soccer ball and worry about what impact the testing will have on their traditional source of food.

The Polarstern will drag air guns in its wake and measure what happens to the sound waves they blast out every 60 seconds. Hunters says all this noise is bound to drive off the animals, and this week, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, which represents residents of Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet, Clyde River, Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord, petitioned the Nunavut Court of Justice to call the whole thing off.

The move has drawn support from a surprising source - environmentalists, who rarely see eye to eye with hunters, says Chris Debicki, who works in Iqaluit with Oceans North Canada, a branch of the U.S.-based Pew Environment Group. But they also oppose the testing, both in the short run and because of what it could lead to down the road: drilling for underwater petroleum and the prospect of a spill like the one that sent an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

If history is any indication, there is cause for concern. Four decades ago, a crew looking for gas on Melville Island, more than 400 kilometres west of Lancaster Sound, sparked a blowout that lasted 485 days - five times what it took to contain the gulf spill.

A year later, perhaps the largest blowout Canada has seen took place north of Melville on tiny King Christian Island. The gas ignited, fried the drilling rig and created an 85-metre-high column of flame that burned for three months and could be seen from the air hundreds of kilometres away.

Even so, in 1974, a company was given approval in principle to drill in Lancaster Sound, but the final go-ahead was delayed for three years and then the ruling rescinded due to environmental concerns.


Now, the government insists that fears for the future of the sound are groundless, especially since last December, when Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced a $5-million study to determine whether it should become a national marine conservation area, which would effectively ban resource development.

If that is so, the hunters and environmentalists ask, why look for resources at all?

Mr. Prentice argues that by providing a better understanding of geology, the testing will "inform the creation" of a conservation area. Meanwhile, Leona Aglukkaq, who represents Nunavut in Parliament and is the federal minister responsible for the north, says that "the mapping of undersea geology is essential to making better decisions on land use and economic development."

The territory's chief geologist, Donald James confirms that testing is "part of the process" for a national park. "It's called a mineral and energy resource assessment. It has to be done in the legislation."

He says, "people don't understand the process," and "should a conservation area be formed, Lancaster Sound will be protected … regardless of the resource potential."

Many Arctic residents don't believe this. "When they find something, they will want to do the drilling or mining," insists Meeka Kiguktak, mayor of Grise Fiord.

This week, although Inuit leaders had asked for a delay while the National Energy Board reviews the safety of offshore drilling, Indian and Northern Affairs auctioned off for $103-million exploration rights to 205,000 deep-water hectares in the Beaufort Sea.

The apparent haste worries people like Ms. Kiguktak: "I can't imagine our whales and walruses floating on shore, coated with oil. Our elders always say money comes and goes, but if animals and birds go, they're gone. For Inuit to survive up here, we've got to protect our environment."

Experts in oil recovery say the cold and ice would make a cleanup far more difficult than in the Gulf of Mexico. News reports this week suggest companies facing a spill may need three years to drill a relief well.

And if the spill is significant, "there does not exist today technology that can recover oil from ice," Ron Bowden of Vancouver-based Aqua-Guard Spill Response Inc. recently told a Senate committee. "You can't lay boom on ice. You can't recover oil from the surface because it's hampered by the ice, or under the ice, so it's quite a different scenario."

Okalik Eegeesiak, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, says that, given what is at stake, she is "bewildered" that Ottawa stuck with the seismic testing. "We were led to believe they would" cancel it or avoid Lancaster Sound.

So, it's no surprise residents are joining forces with environmentalists, who she says are "starting to understand where we come from." The feeling is mutual, adds Ron Elliott, the area's member of Nunavut's Legislature. "As someone … commented: 'I think we're starting to sound like Greenpeace.' "


Although exploration licences have been granted, no offshore drilling is being done in the Canadian Arctic, and Mr. James says no one knows whether there ever will be. The government and the NRC are "not in the oil and gas business," he says. "But what we can do is say, … 'Here are great areas that, in the future, we can direct exploration companies to test further.' "

In any event, he adds, "decisions are going be made with the very best geoscience tools and research data available. The work we're doing right now is going to assist that."

Residents can't help but wonder how much say they will have. "A lot of times, it feels like David and Goliath here," Mr. Elliott says. "And it seems Goliath is going to do what Goliath is going to do."

In the Western Arctic, a verdict is much closer. Last week, Imperial Oil announced that it and its U.S. parent company, Exxon Mobil Corp., will take a 50-per-cent share in a venture to develop deep-water properties in the Beaufort Sea, where the stakes in the border dispute are high. The contested area may hold 1.7 billion cubic metres of gas and a billion cubic metres of oil.

The joint mapping mission should produce an agreement, but drilling is unlikely to begin until the NEB finishes the investigation it launched in the wake of the massive gulf spill - which is especially relevant, considering who has the other half of Imperial Oil's big project: British Petroleum.

Special to The Globe and Mail