Last month, a humble marine bulk carrier made history transiting the Northwest Passage, opening a new chapter in Arctic shipping over the top of North America. Reactions depended on where people sit.
A U.S. federal government official helpfully discouraged Canadian focus on the Northwest Passage while we're at odds over its legal status, something lawyers might or might not clear up by the end of the century. For those who favour Arctic development, the voyage offers a tempting glimpse of the new maritime economy oceanic warming may bring. Environmentalists foresee an apocalypse. For those with a love of history, the voyage recalls centuries of exploration and sacrifice by iron sailors in wooden ships searching for a shorter trade route between Europe and Asia.
A balanced and realistic reaction is in order. Recall the facts:
The Nordic Orion, a Danish-American vessel, picked up coal from a dock in Vancouver, sailed north around Alaska, through the Canadian Arctic archipelago and then south past Greenland to deliver its cargo to Finland.
The northern route was considerably shorter than using the Panama Canal. Less fuel was burned and less greenhouse gas was emitted. The ship (not limited by the depth of the Panama Canal) carried a full cargo and paid no canal fees. The vessel and its crew met strict Canadian government fitness, safety and security regulations, satisfied insurance requirements and, critically, showed that it could be done.
This was the first Northwest Passage transit by a commercial cargo vessel without help from an icebreaker. The combination of melting Arctic ice, modern technology, an experienced Canadian ice pilot and a business niche spotted by an innovative company made this first transit safe, efficient and profitable.
The fact of this successful voyage does challenge the myth that commercial use of NWP is impossible because of shallow water and ice congestion. The Russian Northern Sea Route has geography, icebreakers and strong government support, but it's not the only possibility for expanded trans-polar traffic.
Still, it will be years before the NWP is truly "open for business," even for specialized cargo and ships like the Arctic Orion.
Last month, the Arctic ice was at its seasonal minimum in what is a very short shipping season. The Arctic Orion is a costly new ice-capable commercial vessel with a 1A ice-hardened hull and 50 per cent more horsepower than a conventional vessel. No special ice or weather problems were encountered, but the Canadian Arctic remains a very dangerous marine environment, with almost no coastal support infrastructure.
Sadly, Canada lacks deep-water ports, icebreakers, state-of-the-art navigation aids, search and rescue facilities, oil spill prevention and mitigation capacity and fully modern charts that would facilitate destination, cruise, fishing and trans-polar shipping.
The gradual and careful opening of the North American Arctic Ocean could bring great benefits to local people, traders, shippers and investors, while providing better destination service and shorter and greener routes to and from Asia from North America's east coast, and to and from Europe from our west coast.
Change will be slow, even if we act sensibly and in good time. So environmentalists should take a Prozac, developers should be patient and prudent, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq should stick to her themes and the U.S. State Department should recognize that a jumble of conventional U.S. multilateral Arctic positions are not a good roadmap for a 21st-century North American Arctic policy.
John Higginbotham is a senior distinguished fellow at Carleton University and leads CIGI's Arctic program. He was an assistant deputy minister at Transport Canada and Foreign Affairs, serving in Washington and China.