Security and Public Safety in the Arctic

The Arctic is changing. Combined factors of climate change, resource development and changing geo-political concerns create an Arctic that is becoming more accessible – and thus coveted – by the outside world. The increased tempo of southern penetration of the north will provide opportunities for Canadians, but, at the same time, create difficult challenges to solve. The uncertainty of how this will manifest itself is perhaps the greatest difficulty now facing Government officials. Knowing that massive change is coming does not define solutions for making the north secure and safe for all.

The first problem is in determining what is changing. A common perception is that the ice is receding and the north is opening up. In part this is true, but it does not tell the whole story. The ice is receding as the arctic warms, but the impact on the north is confounding. As temperatures rise, some areas of the Arctic may receive more ice. This will be caused by the break-up of the polar cap ice and the natural flow of this ice into the Canadian arctic archipelago. At the same time, Greenland will act as a giant refrigerator for the area immediately adjacent to it, as its rate of melt remains slower than that of the Arctic Ocean. Ice from the cap will eventually melt, as will the ice sheets of Greenland, but the twin effects will mean that the melt of the ice and snow of the Canadian arctic will be uneven and difficult to predict in the short and medium term (1-30 years). However, it is increasingly clear that the ice will indeed be melting.

Demands for energy continues to escalate – Americans are looking for alternative sources to the middle east, the Chinese are looking everywhere, and it is expected that India will soon rival China in the its requirement for new energy resources.

All of this is driving the price of oil beyond $100 a barrel. Given that the Canadian Arctic is strongly suspected to contain large amounts of oil, gas, and gas hydrates (the new energy source: a gelatinous form of gas), new and extensive exploration efforts are about to begin in the north.

Should anyone think that old geopolitical realities ended with the death of the Cold War, it is only necessary to review Russian action this past summer to realize that such hopes are somewhat premature. Under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, all states are now able to claim control over the soil and subsoil of their continental shelf beyond the 200 nautical mile Economic Exclusive Zone that they already control. However, in order to do this, they must demonstrate that they have a continental shelf. It is strongly suspected that the Arctic Ocean is indeed an extension of the continental shelf of both Europe, Asia and North America. All five boarding nations – Canada, the U.S., Denmark/Greenland, Norway and Russia – are now determining if they can make claims over “their” part of the Arctic Ocean. Of the five, Russia has been the most active – and the most aggressive – including the use of publicity stunts like the recent planting of their flag on the sea bottom at the north pole by mini-sub. Russia has also restarted Arctic air patrols that had stopped at the end of the Cold War. America has recently placed one of their two ballistic missile interceptor sites in Fort Greeley, Alaska. Thus, like the Russians, they have taken steps that will ensure that the Arctic remains an important strategic location.

Each of these three elements – temperature, energy, geopolitics – has a major impact on the security and safety of those living in the Canadian north. The fact that all three are intersecting at the same time means that the job of determining what to do is even more complicated.

What are the implications for Canada, in terms of public safety and security? First, climate change is altering the physical reality of the north. Among the northern aboriginal communities, living off the land with the use of traditional knowledge is increasingly problematic. It is becoming more difficult to read the signs of nature because so much is changing so quickly. Already, there is an increase of hunters finding themselves in treacherous situations because ice is melting too soon, or storms are developing at unusual times. Thus, the physical safety of these Canadians is at a higher risk. At the same time, warming temperatures are adversely affecting the physical infrastructure of the north. The time period that ice roads remain open is being dramatically shortened. The roads and landing strips that are built on the ­permafrost are showing signs of collapse as it melts. All of these place the safety of all northern communities at risk.

Equally problematic, are the perceptions being created internationally by the expected impacts of climate change. The world increasingly believes that climate change has opened the Canadian north.

Criminal elements have already attempted to take advantage of this. In the summer of 2007, suspected Norwegian gang members attempted to transit the Northwest Passage in a small vessel named Berserk. They are alleged to have committed crimes and/or taken part in unacceptable activity in several communities before being intercepted in Cambridge Bay. The full story of their plan has not yet been made public, but the fact that such a group thought of taking a sailboat through the NWP – and made it as far as Cambridge Bay – demonstrates how serious the problem of unwanted intrusions is becoming.

A host of foreign commercial interests are watching for opportunities in the melting Arctic. The highest profile issue is the expectation of commercial shipping through the Northwest Passage. Should such activity occur, there is potential for serious threat to Canadian sovereignty.

If foreign-owned shipping companies ask per­mission and follow Canadian regulations and laws, then Canadian control over the passage will be retained. But if this does not happen, and they do not abide by our laws, Canada will face a crisis – to either surrender its claim or take action to control such voyages.

While the preferred course of action would be through the courts, Canadian officials would need to be prepared to take physical action if necessary. Most shippers, will probably be deterred by ice conditions, however, some may not. It is clear that there has already been an increase of shipping associated with either the resource industry, research, tourism and shipping to northern destinations such as Churchill, Manitoba – this is the type of shipping that will now increase.

While such shipping is not considered a sovereignty issue, it will still need to be monitored for safety and security purposes. As the recent sinking of the Antarctic cruise ship Explorer showed, even experienced operators can face major problems in partially ice-covered waters.
The impact of the expected northern energy boom will also be substantial on Canadian public safety and security. The practice in Canada regarding the resource industry in general is to let the companies take care of their own safety and security when operating in remote areas. While such a practice can be understood on financial grounds, it is short-sighted. When Canada had only one or two northern development projects, it may have been possible to ensure that their safety and security needs were met, but, given the magnitude of future projects, such an approach is ­irresponsible.

Safety issues will be associated with the movement of large numbers of workers needed in the north. Further complicating the challenges will be the influx of workers from foreign nations. This is already happening in the diamond industry and will be magnified as oil and gas production begins. Drug importation will inevitably increase with such population growth. These factors will create added strain on local RCMP forces and will impact local communities that are already facing social problems caused by drugs.

The re-emergence of geo-political ­concerns in the Arctic now means that Canada no longer has the luxury of pretending that the end of the Cold War meant that it never again needed to think of traditional northern security issues.

While it is much too soon to know how Russian relations with its Arctic neighbours will develop, the growing power and assertiveness of the current Administration make it clear that, in security terms, the west cannot ignore the north. Putin may turn out to be a momentary lapse in Russia’s progress towards a more democratic system, but Canada cannot risk the chance. If Putin continues to re-develop Russian power, it is only a matter of time before arctic issues arise between these two neighbours.

While such issues can normally be resolved in a cooperative fashion, it is only prudent to ensure that Canadian officials recognize the need to retain a capability to resort to harder options if needed. The reality is that Canada has very little capability and needs to begin now to rebuild if it is to have a force that would be ready to meet a more assertive Russia in the north.

Ultimately, it should be apparent that Canada now faces a wide range of security and safety problems in its Arctic. These problems are being created and acierated by the many changes that are now reshaping the entire polar region. Officials need to prepare to face what are now fuzzy potential problems – it may be too late to prepare when they come into proper focus.

Thus, Canada needs to develop 24/7 ­situational awareness capabilities in the north and must be ready to act upon that knowledge. We need to think at both the micro and the macro levels, and we will need “boots on the ground” in northern communities. This also means more RCMP and health officials to deal with issues associated with increased economic activity.  

Canada will need the means to act – RCMP and other first responders will require more vehicles, aircraft and heavy equipment. The proposed new Arctic /Offshore Patrol vessels will be an indispensable addition, but icebreakers will also be important. All of this is expensive, but it is clear that the Canadian Arctic has opened. We can prepare now at substantial cost; or wait, and spend much more later – and at greater risk. 

A recognized expert on Canada’s Arctic, Dr. Rob Huebert is an Associate Director at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies and with the Depart­ment of Political Science at the University of Calgary.
© FrontLine Security 2007