Canada tracks the Northwest Passage

This summer military scientists from Defense Research and Development Canada are establishing a comprehensive maritime monitoring system off Devon Island to better understand who is using the progressively melting Northwest Passage.

The principal reason for monitoring the traffic in the Northwest Passage is environmental protection, said Robert Huebert, Associate Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

“We need to be able to know who is up there, and we need to be able to respond when we, in fact, find someone up there is doing something we don’t want,” said Hubert.

Located in the Gascoyne Inlet on Devon Island, project Northern Watch includes underwater sensors, radar interception and infrared and laser imagers automatically sending information to satellites. The system will be able to detect traffic travelling below, on and above the brisk northern waters.

“Where a lot of the concerns over the waterways of the Arctic are the highest is over what type of requirements you have for shipping and ship safety, it all comes really down to the environment,” said Hubert.

On top of environmental concerns, there are outstanding issues of border disputes, resource claims and Canadian security.

“We have complete control of the resources for 200 nautical miles [off our coasts] except when we have boundary disputes, and we have a fairly substantial one with the Americans,” said Hubert.

Canada and the United States are in disagreement over an energy rich “wedge” of the Beaufort Sea, north of the Yukon. Canada believes that the maritime border should be an extension of the Alaska-Yukon border, while the Americans maintain that the border should extend perpendicularly from the coast, creating the disputed “wedge” area.

According to Defence Research and Development Canada the project will significantly increase Canadian presence in the region, with the aim of improving Arctic Command, Control, Computers, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. Northern Watch will also boost Canadian search and rescue capabilities in the passage.

“Where Canada’s been hurting the most is in terms of its surveillance and enforcement capability,” said Hubert. “The issue of whether or not we have sovereign control of the Northwest Passage really comes down to an issue of who gets to control shipping.”

Nations and corporations are not the only groups using the passage. Recreational sailors are becoming more common in the region. In 2007, a Norwegian boat with ties to organized crime was caught in Canadian waters after failing to properly disclose all of their actions to Canadian authorities.

Though the Arctic region has by and large been peaceful, security is still a major concern for policy makers.

“The last issue, of course, is in terms of ultimately security,” said Hubert. “There is redevelopment of military capacities in the north, and we need to know what any of our arctic neighbours, or anyone else for that matter, are doing in the arctic region.”

Samsung Heavy Industries has developed revolutionary “ice breaking” ships for use in frozen waters. The ships feature a propeller that can rotate 360 degrees, allowing the ship to move backwards through formidable sections of ice when needed. As the stern of the ship does most of the ice breaking, the bow is designed for speed in clearer waters, making the ships more fuel efficient than conventional ice breakers.

“Even if climate change wasn’t occurring, new technological developments would probably facilitate an intrigue and interest in the arctic,” said Hubert. “So even if it wasn’t melting we would still be seeing these new technologies that are allowing people to conduct shipping in and out of arctic waters.”