Economic Uncertainty for Canada’s Northwest Passage

by Sam Geldin
Contributing Writer 

The alarmingly shrinking expansion of Arctic sea ice, which receded to an unprecedented annual minimum last autumn of 2012, presents nations like Canada with a wildly uncertain future.

Not only does this seasonal low, along with harbingers like shifting precipitation patterns and rising sea levels, attest to the now globally-observed increase in yearly average temperature, it reasonably reinforces the likelihood of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) estimates forecasting summer Arctic sea ice to vanish entirely by the end of the century, once an outlandish prospect. Likely in part due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, the Northwest Passage that eluded countless adventurers searching for a maritime shortcut from Europe to Asia might suddenly emerge as a modern reality and point of contention. While an economically viable Northwest Passage offers Canada opportunities for enhanced trade and resource access, conflicting regional effects of climate change and ambiguous international responses to highly-contested polar boundaries will ultimately outweigh such a route’s benefits for the country’s interests.

With an already burgeoning population of skilled workers, Canada’s economic potential appears only magnified by more accessible fishing grounds; millions more ecotourists hoping to witness polar bears and other vestiges of the melting Arctic; and untapped oil and natural gas deposits (approximately 13% and 30% of global undiscovered reserves respectively, according to the US Geological Survey)—all of which are associated with Arctic sea ice retreat.

However, while considerable absence of thick multiyear ice may allow costly tankers, barges, and cargo vessels extended traveling ranges, sharp remnant chunks of sea ice and land-borne icebergs will ensure slow, seasonally variable, and treacherous summer transport through the briefly ice-free Northwest Passage.

Though a thinner atmosphere and accelerating albedo feedback cycles (where iceless ocean absorbs more ice-zapping heat) accentuate the rate of warming over northern polar regions, unimproved net agricultural yields and deteriorating ice-dependent winter roads could complicate shipping gains. In other words, warmer temperatures may boost production of crops northward of currently arable land, but drier conditions may ultimately decrease harvests in southern prairies. In the same way, increased ice-free sea transit during a short window of time at the end of summer probably will not offset the economic hindrances of losing months-long service of ice roads and rail routes that depend on cold temperatures for stability to deliver regional resources and valuable commodities like diamonds, petroleum, and grain by land.Especially considering how increased international market exposure will not only incline maritime arteries like the Panama and Suez Canals to lower their tolls, but also spell an uncertain fate for competing “destinational” shipping interests locally supplying and servicing booming outposts like Churchill, Iqaluit, and Tuktoyaktuk, the thought of Canada reaping lucrative profits in all economic sectors from a functional Northwest Passage in the coming decades certainly lies on thin ice.

Recent statistical investigations of Canadians involved in Arctic affairs highlights general support, despite varying methods, for polar development, yet vying foreign claims for unsettled sea territory, fossil fuel and marine resources, and multinational sovereignty over Arctic waterways overshadow Canada’s own strategic Northwest Passage development plans.

Since the evaporation of Cold War era tensions, a recent surge in Arctic militarization and charged nationalist rhetoric over extending northern maritime boundaries up to 200 nautical miles from shore in accordance with the United Nation’s EEZ (exclusive economic zone) recognition prompts heated international stalemate and demonstrates how effects of climate change blur traditional notions of sovereignty over land and resources. While locals draw resources from frozen waterways the same way as on land and Canadian officials assert authority over inter-island marine passages, multinational (particularly American) critics identify an increasingly navigable Arctic shipping route in a global light, as linking two nationless bodies of water, further complicating proper recognition.

Already, Russia’s move to stake its flag over the North Pole in 2007 and Canada’s calls to construct another costly Arctic military base in Resolute Bay and strengthen its fleet of patrol ships and icebreakers (securitizing steps not unlike those of other Arctic nations) reinforce the inescapable, often superseding role that politics will play in shaping the uncertain fate of the Northwest Passage amidst climate change. Even as warmer temperatures thaw a region primed for increased economic activity, international boundary delineation over shifting environmental factors and competing national interests ultimately possess the power to encourage or discourage greater economic interconnectivity of Canada’s Arctic ports with North America and beyond.


1. Maria-José Viñas, “Arctic Sea Ice Hits Smallest Extent In Satellite Era,” NASA, September 19, 2012, accessed October 13, 2012,

2. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007 Synthesis Report: Summary for Policymakers (IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, 2007;

3. L. C. Smith, The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future (Plume, New York, 2011).

4. L. C. Smith, Agents of change in the new north. Eurasian Geography & Economics 52, 30-55 (January/February 2011).

5. J. Parsons, J. Dinwoodie, M. Roe, Northern opportunities: a strategic review of Canada’s Arctic icebreaking services. Marine Policy 35, 549-556 (July 2011).

6. H. Gerhardt, P. E. Steinberg, J. Tasch, S. J. Fabiano, R. Shields, Contested sovereignty in a changing Arctic. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100, 992-1002 (September 2010).

7. S. Chaturvedi, in Global and Regional Problems: Towards an Interdisciplinary Study, P. Aalto, V. Harle, S. Moisio, Eds. (Ashgate, Burlington, VT, 2012), chap. 8.


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