The Danish-owned freighter Nordic Orion's sailing this month through the Northwest Passage with a load of B.C. coal is a historic one. It's only the second commercial bulk carrier to traverse the Arctic route since 1969.
But the vessel is likely a harbinger for the future as climate change makes the ice-bound Northwest Passage increasingly navigable.
The implications for Canada are profound, given we claim sovereignty over the region and want to assert control over commercial traffic through the passage.
You can follow the Nordic Orion's progress here as it makes a its way across the top of Canada, scheduled to arrive at Pori, Finland in early October.
It's been more than four decades since the oil tanker SS Manhattan, its bow reinforced to deal with ice floes, made its much-publicized trip through the Northwest Passage to test its feasibility as a trade route to deliver Alaskan oil to the U.S. East Coast, avoiding a long trip south to the Panama Canal.
The Manhattan was ahead of its time. Its journey through the passage wasn't easy and the Americans opted for an oil pipeline to move Alaskan crude south. But as warming Arctic waters make the route navigable for longer each year, the passage could finally become a viable commercial shipping route.
“I think this pretty much cements our position as a world-leading ice operator,” Christian Bonfils, managing director of Nordic Bulk, told the Globe and Mail. “In four years, we have created history in two new shipping routes – we are a small company and that’s pretty special.”
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Nordic Bulk shipped a load of iron ore from Norway to China via the Northern Sea Route, which runs through Russian territory, in 2010. The Nordic Orion's sister ship, the Nordic Odyssey, last year took on 65,000 tons of iron ore from Murmansk, in northern Russia, destined for China, according to the New Yorker.
“For some routes, it [the Northwest Passage] can save up to 7,000 kilometres – and that’s not just a distance savings, that’s a savings in terms of fuel, time and salaries,” Michael Byers, an international law expert at the University of British Columbia, told the Globe. “Time is money in the international shipping business and a 7,000-kilometre shortcut is of great interest.”
Byers, who writes a blog Who Owns the Arctic?, last month reposted an article he wrote for AlJazeera.com on the impact of opening Arctic waters.
China, especially, is looking for ways to speed the flow of goods to and from the the global trading superpower, he said.
"In China, the media refer to the Northern Sea Route as the 'Arctic Golden Waterway,' Byers wrote. "Professor Bin Yang of Shanghai Maritime University estimates the route could save his country $60 billion to $120 billion per year."
Russia has taken an aggressive approach to readying its waterways for increased traffic, he said, using icebreakers to escort commercial ships for a fee, and planning to add new search-and-rescue stations, upgrading its Arctic ports, improving weather and ice forecasting and streamlining shipping permits.
A 2006 paper on Arctic sovereignty prepared for the Parliament of Canada noted the climate change could result in nearly ice-free conditions for the entire summer as early as 2050, though probably not before 2100. However scientific studies suggest sea ice is receding even faster than predicted.
"The impacts of climate change heighten the existing dispute over the status of the Northwest Passage," the paper says. "Canada claims that the Arctic waters of the Northwest Passage constitute 'historic internal waters,' and thus fall under Canadian jurisdiction and control.
"However, this claim has been disputed, especially by the United States and the European Union. The United States has consistently argued that the Northwest Passage represents an international strait [international waters], which allows the right of transit passage [beyond 'innocent passage']."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said asserting Canada's sovereignty in the region is a priority but the Conservative governments ambitious northern strategy, which included a new fleet of icebreaking patrol ships, a naval refuelling station in the High Arctic and other measures, has stumbled amid budget cuts and the shift to other policy priorities.
The problem alarms some observers.
“The Russians have 10 bases, you would hope we could at least get one going,” Rob Huebert, an Arctic expert, told The Canadian Press last month.
Byers notes in the Globe that Canada is also short of search-and-rescue capability, not to mention the capacity to respond to any kind of environmental crisis, such as an oil spill.
“This is the kind of challenge that by all rights should necessitate hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars of fairly rapid investment by the government of Canada to ensure that vessels like this … if they come into the Canadian Arctic, they can do so in relative safety," he said.