Inside a high-security facility in southern England this week, two Canadian officers scribbled notes as they learned how to spot Russian submarines by listening to faint sounds reflected off the floor of the Arctic Ocean.
Later, they would spend hours memorizing the intricate and nearly silent audio patterns made by the latest generation of Russian and U.S. submarines, highly classified knowledge that will be used by Canada to follow the increasingly assertive manoeuvres taking place beneath the
"It's become a real cat-and-mouse game, actually, submarines keep trying to improve their noise-quieting technology, and we try to improve our listening technology to stay ahead. It's a constant challenge," said Captain Glen Gullison, from the Canadian military's Acoustic Data Analysis Centre in Halifax.
This little-known aspect of Canada's military operations, conducted by 200 people trained in the dark arts of sub-spotting, has just taken on a new prominence as Prime Minister Stephen Harper laid out plans this week to militarize Canada's claims on the Arctic.
In recent months, a Cold War-style game of imperial conquest has developed beneath the ice of the Arctic Ocean and the Northwest Passage, a submarine-driven dispute involving the United States, Norway, Denmark and especially Canada and Russia. Mr. Harper used this week's Throne Speech to signal the federal government was stepping up its presence in the Far North, pledging a bold and expensive military campaign to assert sovereignty over territory claimed by Canada, and areas of the Arctic that are still in dispute.
"The North needs new attention," the Prime Minister said. "Defending our sovereignty in the North also demands that we maintain the capacity to act."
"New Arctic patrol ships and expanded aerial surveillance will guard Canada's Far North and the Northwest Passage," Mr. Harper said. "As well, the size and capabilities of the Arctic Rangers will be expanded to better patrol our vast Arctic territory."
It was the top item in the provocative Throne Speech, and it implied an expansion of the Conservatives' ambitious Canada First Defence Strategy, a plan that could cost billions of dollars and intended, first and foremost, to establish Canadian force and surveillance in the Arctic. It envisions an Arctic Warfare Training Centre and at least 1,000 soldiers in the Arctic.
For many Canadians, these words were a natural and welcome bid to defend Canada's ownership of the Far North in the face of challenges from the United States, the Scandinavian nations and especially Russia, which sent research submarines beneath the ice this summer to plant a Russian flag - conquistador-style - directly beneath the ice at the North Pole, part of its claim to ownership of 45 per cent of the Arctic.
But it's not at all clear that Canada really owns any of the Arctic Ocean. And if Canada's legal claims to the northern sea prove to be unfounded, its new military thrust could place it in the company of Russia as an aggressor battling for the world's last pools of oil in a legal no man's land.
The fight for ownership of the Arctic Ocean and the seabed beneath it, driven by the possibility of finding immeasurable quantities of oil and gas, is a five-way battle between Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark and the United States in which Canada has no particular privilege.
"As a matter of legal principle, Canada has no greater claim on the Arctic than any of the other four Arctic states, or indeed than any state in the world, quite frankly," said Rosemary Rayfuse, a professor at Australia's University of New South Wales and an expert on the Law of the Sea treaty. "Depending on geological realities, Canada may have a geological claim on some extension of the continental shelf, although I think that Russia and Norway have the greatest amount, from what I've seen."
At the heart of the issue is an undersea mountain range, buried deep beneath the ice, known as the Lomonosov Ridge. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries can claim undersea territory as their own if they can prove that it is directly linked to an extension of their own section of continental plate.
Russia has spent billions attempting to prove, using submarines, that its territory is connected to the North Pole, and the United States has researched similar claims involving Alaska. But the Canadian government only began research, budgeted at $70-million, in 2004, and it is not at all clear that the ridge is connected to any part of Canada.
In fact, Mr. Harper's Throne Speech this week included a pledge to "complete comprehensive mapping of Canada's Arctic seabed," a proposal that many international-law experts say is being made years too late, and that some characterize as a desperate bid to find a link between Canada and the Lomonosov Ridge. Canada has until 2013 to provide geological evidence of any claims on the Arctic under the Law of the Sea treaty; Russia's deadline is 2009, and the United States hasn't ratified the treaty, although is expected to do so in the near future.
This was all an academic point involving a beautiful but useless stretch of ice until recently, when rising global temperatures caused the ice to start melting. Now some scientists predict that the Arctic cap could be completely melted throughout the summer by 2040.
This opens up the possibility of enormous oil and gas resources, larger than those stored in the Middle East, available to whoever can claim to own the roof of the world. It's a dark irony that the burning of fossil fuels that contributed to the ice melt may end up making it possible to extract another century's worth of earth-warming petroleum reserves from beneath that ice. But it's a possibility that is driving countries like Canada to spend millions.
"The petroleum reserves, especially around the continental ridges themselves, could be quite profound - we're talking about anything from 50 to 100 million barrels," said Manouchehr Takin, a senior analyst at the Centre for Global Energy Studies in London. He believes that the large volumes of oil and gas around the continental shelf could be fairly easy to exploit, and could be extracted within about 10 years.
But Canada is far from proving that it owns any part of the Arctic Ocean, even as it prepares to set up air and land patrols in the northernmost regions through the ambitious Canada First Defence Strategy. And we have been wrong before. Canada's claim on Hans Island, a lifeless piece of rock between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, became a full-blown international dispute in 2005, when then-defence minister Bill Graham landed on the island and planted Canada's flag, leading to diplomatic threats from Denmark.
Satellite studies later showed that the island was located more in Danish than in Canadian territory, and scientists say that the most recent geological surveys of continental ridges seem to show that it is better defined as part of Greenland.
There is a worry, therefore, that Canada may be sending its military into a stretch of territory that is not legally its own, and that may turn out to be part of another country. Some legal experts say that it is inflammatory and dangerous to militarize a conflict that ought to be kept in more polite domains.
"Ultimately, the stuff in the high Arctic is politics," said Ted McDorman, a professor of coastal and marine law at the University of Victoria. "It's a matter of coming to an agreement between countries as to how to deal with that shelf area on Lomonosov Ridge, assuming it meets the geological requirements. Putting the military up there could just make it harder for the Russians to negotiate. It'll make them dig in a little more."
Others suggest that the use of the military in the North is simply beside the point, a publicity campaign with little legal value.
"Issues in the North aren't going to be dealt with by the Canadian Forces," Douglas Bland, chairman of the defence management studies program at Queen's University, told the Defense News. "They'll be handled by diplomacy and other similar means."
In the Northwest Passage, a thousand kilometres south of the Arctic Ocean, there is a stronger case for boatloads of rifle-toting Canadians to be part of the program, precisely because it isn't clear that Canada owns it. Under maritime law, the passage may well be defined as an international shipping channel; this is how the United States has long defined it, and the dispute over its status has been a frequent cause of tension between the United States and Canada.
This is where soldiers come in: Canada can only claim ownership of the Passage if it actively challenges other attempts by other countries to use the passage, something it has failed to do on two occasions, both involving U.S. vessels making the crossing in defiance of Canada. This has become a much bigger threat with global warming, as evidenced by this week's unprecedented shipment of fertilizer from Russia to Churchill, Man., a voyage that wouldn't have been possible a few years ago.
But this still led some observers to question Mr. Harper's use of combat troops to accomplish what is essentially a modest act of policing, especially when officials close to the U.S. administration, including former ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci, have suggested that U.S. interests might be best served by letting Canada have the Northwest Passage.
"I do think that it's important to demonstrate a policing presence," said Michael Byers, an international-law professor at the University of British Columbia. "And whether it's provided by a frigate or a Coast Guard icebreaker doesn't really matter; it's having a presence and having the ability to put a handful of armed men on a vessel with a helicopter if we need to.
"So I'm a little bit skeptical of Mr. Harper's choice of the navy as the enforcement mechanism, given that we have a Coast Guard with decades of experience," Dr. Byers said. "I wonder whether the navy was the right choice in terms of allocating the funds for northern vessels."
At the moment, the areas under dispute seem likely to involve only a small portion of Arctic seabed, perhaps only 5 per cent. The submarine patrols being monitored so carefully beneath the Arctic Ocean and the Northwest Passage aren't hostile, and even the Russian flag-planting exercise was claimed to be little more than a research expedition (though many observers say it could be used as future evidence for a territory claim). So some say that Canada should adopt a much more passive approach to the Arctic.
"I think what it might make sense for Canada to do is just to react to what other countries are doing. ... If other countries seem to be overreaching, then Canada has to think about what is appropriate to do in that situation, and if other countries aren't following the rules ... you don't have any obligation to follow them yourself," said Eric Posner, a professor of international law at the University of Chicago.
Indeed, some say that the idea of a northern Cold War has arisen simply because some leaders, notably Mr. Harper, have insisted in describing it that way.
"There's a rhetoric of conflict surrounding this issue, and that unfortunately can become self-fulfilling," Dr. Byers said. "I'm not entirely sure about Mr. Harper himself, who until the Throne Speech was focused almost entirely on the military dimension of Arctic sovereignty. But at least this week he did, for the first time, talk about social and economic development ... so he's at last recognized that this is a multidimensional issue."
But even if he risked escalating a legal standoff into a military issue, Mr. Harper won applause from a number of informed observers, who say that the contentious aspects of the Arctic issue are bound to be settled, in the end, through sheer might. An escalating submarine war beneath the ice, in this view, is well worth pursuing.
"The Law of the Sea treaty itself is quite ambiguous here, and in fact it almost encourages this type of behaviour," Mr. Posner said.
"So to the extent that it's ambiguous, then the outcome will be determined by simple power."
Countries and their claims
Scientists returned from a six-week mission on a nuclear ice-breaker this summer to claim that the 1,931-kilometre-long Lomonosov Ridge is geologically linked to the Siberian continental platform and similar in structure. The Russians believe the information will support a claim to about 1.2 million square kilometres of energy-rich territory in the Arctic.
The Danish government is pouring millions of dollars into a comprehensive map showing in bold relief the geological features of the Arctic Ocean floor. The Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland has shown that the Lomonosov Ridge runs from the top of Greenland to the North Pole. Based on this underwater, sea-floor connection, Denmark has laid claim to the North Pole itself.
Canada is currently conducting a $70-million project to map the seabed on its side of the Lomonosov Ridge. Canada's claims include sovereignty over the Northwest Passage sea lanes, a potential source of disagreement with the United States.
The United States
A new survey by U.S. oceanographers of the seafloor north of Alaska reported that thousands of square kilometres of additional seafloor could potentially be under U.S. control. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard are now actively determining what ships and assets they need for Arctic operations.
Norway has emphasized the need to structure a long-term system of international governance for the polar regions. Its scientists and researchers are calling for co-operation rather than competition. But Norway is also seeking an extension to its sub-sea territory in the Arctic and Norwegian oil companies are pushing north in the Barents Sea.
Sources: BBC, Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, Canadian American Strategic Review, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, New York Times and Reuters
Early Arctic life
The polar regions were not populated during the Pleistocene Epoch, from 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago, when most of man's prehistory was unfolding. Man began as a tropical animal, and the Arctic was the last area, except for the Antarctic, to be inhabited.
Areas just south of the Arctic, which, in Pleistocene times, had climates similar to the Arctic, do show significant early developments. At sites on the Upper Yenisey River and Lake Baikal and at other locations across the steppes into European Russia, for instance, have been found the world's oldest known houses, probably ancestral to the earth dwellings of Arctic peoples.
Several early peoples - the Chukchi, Koryaks and Kamchadals - are believed to have entered northeastern Siberia about 2,000 years ago, finding the ancestors of the Inuit already living along the coasts.
In the eastern part of the American Arctic, including the Hudson Bay region and Greenland, there is an early culture, known as Dorset, dating from about 1000 BC and lasting to about 1000 or 1200 AD, when Inuit overran the area.
At that time, the climate in the Northern Hemisphere warmed considerably, and for several centuries the Arctic was milder than it is today, and there was a marked decrease in sea ice. In this period, two groups of people began migrations into Arctic North America.
From the west came Alaskan Eskimos, known as Thule culture people. By about 1000 AD, groups of them had reached northwestern Greenland. From the east came the Icelandic Norse, embarking from the colonies they had established in southwestern Greenland during the late 10th century.
There is only slight documentary evidence for contacts between the Inuit and the Norse of the Greenland colonies; however, there have been recent scattered archaeological finds of Norse objects in Canadian Arctic Inuit sites.
Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, Civilization.ca
In the air
Canada's fleet of 50 CF-18 fighter aircraft are stationed at Cold Lake, Alta., and Bagotville, Que. At supersonic speed, with stops for refuelling in Yellowknife or Inuvik, they can reach the Far North in three hours. Russian Bear long-range bombers have twice tested Canada's intercept response time recently by approaching Canadian airspace. Canadian Forces will intentionally vary their response times to keep the Russians guessing.
The CP-140 Aurora is Canada's maritime surveillance aircraft. Equipped originally for anti-submarine warfare, it has sophisticated radar and listening devices and can fly long distances without refuelling. Its 10-person crews are based in Greenwood, N.S., and Comox, B.C. It is used in the Arctic in summer months for training operations, and is called on about six times a year for specific Arctic surveillance missions. In an emergency, an Aurora could reach the Far North in six to seven hours.
There are also four Canadian Forces Twin Otters based in Yellowknife to provide transport and tactical support.
Canada has very limited radar capacity in the Far North. As one former commander of Canadian Forces Northern Area said, there could be 100 unauthorized ships in the Northwest Passage and Canada wouldn't know. The area is so vast that a single ship is like a needle in a haystack. Canada's current radar satellite, RadarSat-1, can't see a ship on the surface of the sea. A new satellite, RadarSat-2, is expected to launch later this year and will be able to spot anything larger than three metres. The land-based radar stations known as the North Warning System can detect anything coming at Canada from the air but a ship or submarine on the Earth's surface more than 50 kilometres from the radar station can't be spotted because of the curvature of the Earth.
-CFB Cold Lake is the Western home for the CF-18 fighter and serves as the Canadian Forces' fighter-pilot training school.
-CFB Bagotville is the Eastern home to the CF-18 fighter, a versatile jet that monitors Canadian airspace as part of Canada's NORAD commitments. -CFB North Bay is Canada's main NORAD base. Technicians electronically monitor Canada's airspace around the clock from an underground complex.
On and under the water
The Canadian navy has sent frigates and its smaller marine coastal defence vessels to the North on exercises for the past two years, but they can't stay much beyond September because their hulls aren't reinforced against the ice. The government has announced that over the next several years it will acquire about seven patrol vessels capable of breaking one-year-old ice. Although some were disappointed, analysts point out that when the ice is thick, the marine threat to Canadian sovereignty is small. To accommodate the new patrol vessels, a refuelling facility will be built at Nanisivik, Nunavut. Once built, the vessels will have the daunting task of patrolling an area the size of continental Europe.
SUBMARINES Canada's fleet is powered by diesel fuel, and although the country's sole operational sub did take part in this year's northern exercises, subs aren't deployed under the unpredictable ice because diesel subs need to surface to recharge their engines. Nuclear submarines, operated by Russia, the United States, France and Britain, can patrol under the ice for extended periods without surfacing.
The Canadian Coast Guard deploys six vessels to the Arctic from June to November, mainly to break ice for barges bringing crucial supplies to remote communities. Two of the ships are heavy ice-breakers, capable of operating in multi-year ice, and four are medium ice-breakers. Another two ships with reinforced hulls are used primarily for scientific research in the North. The Coast Guard ships are not armed, and maintaining Canadian sovereignty is not part of their mandate.
-Canadian Forces maritime test range
Nanoose Bay is where Canada's navy tests sonobuoys, sonar systems and torpedoes in an area off the east coast of Vancouver Island.
-CFB Esquimalt is Canada's West Coast navy base and home port to the Pacific fleet.
Canada's fleet of diesel submarines cannot function in our own Arctic waters, but the U.S., U.K., Russia and France all have vessels that can operate there undetected.
On Aug. 10, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the creation of a deepwater port at this Baffin Island community.
Most of the Coast Guard's vessels can operate in the Arctic only in the summer.
-CFB Halifax is Canada's East Coast navy base and home port to the Atlantic fleet.
On the land
HEADQUARTERS The Canadian Forces Joint Task Force North has 125 staff at headquarters in Yellowknife, and a further 40 stationed at 440 Squadron, where they maintain the four Twin Otter aircraft. About 70 personnel are stationed at Alert, in the high Arctic, where they do signals intelligence and maintain an airfield. Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently announced that an Arctic training facility will be established at Resolute Bay.
RANGERS Headquarters of the First Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, above, are also in Yellowknife. The army of 1,500 in the three northern territories are primarily Inuit and aboriginal reservists, from 54 communities, who conduct patrols in remote regions and report any suspicious activity to Canadian Forces headquarters. They are equipped with .303 bolt-action rifles and high-frequency radios, and do most of their winter patrols on snowmobiles. With their distinctive red caps and red-hooded sweaters, they are the only segment of the Canadian Forces that elects its leaders. In the past, the Rangers have spotted foreign submarines and a team of frogmen, suspected to have been deployed off a French sub sitting in Canadian waters.
RCMP The Mounties have 60 detachments in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, with a total of 409 officers in those locations. They are responsible for securing Canada's northern border, and are the first responders in virtually any emergency situation in the north.
-CFNA HQ Whitehorse, home to the Junior Rangers detachment, is used for cadet training during the summer.
-Land Force Northern Area, headquartered in Yellowknife, conducts all army operations in Canada's three northern territories.
-RCAF Station Resolution Island
Converted to an unmanned radar site in 1991
On Aug. 10, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the creation of an Arctic military training facility here.
-RCAF Station Frobisher Bay
Closed in 1957.
SOURCE: WWW.ARMY.FORCES. GC. CA