Climate change has sparked interest in the possibility of using the Northwest Passage for shipping and other commercial activity.
This is making Arctic sovereignty a hot issue: some countries, including the United States, acknowledge the Arctic islands as Canadian territory, but consider the passage to be international waters.
According to the Canadian Coast Guard, 86 ships entered Canada’s Arctic waters in 2007, including research vessels from Denmark, Germany and Russia. There were 11 transits of the Northwest Passage, 5 of them by cruise ships.
Evidence is strong that sea ice is receding, but the long-term consequences are less clear. From 1974 to 2004, the average extent of sea ice cover in summer declined by 15% to 20%. The remaining ice was 10% to 15% thinner overall, and 40% thinner in the central Arctic Ocean, according to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a study commissioned by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum made up of Canada and other nations with Arctic territory. As well, satellite measurements analysed by the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre show that the ice might be melting even more quickly.
In 2001, a U.S. Navy report predicted that “within five to 10 years, the Northwest Passage will be open to non-ice-strengthened vessels for at least one month each summer.”
However, the Canadian government has noted that ‘multi-year ice’, three or four metres thick and nearly as hard as concrete, is being pushed into the Northwest Passage, so passage may still be difficult.