This time last year, the temperature in Nunavut, the faraway Canadian land of massive ice floes and tundra islands that comprise the Arctic archipelago, soared above 73 degrees for the first time. This summer, some 1,480 miles from the territorial capital of Iqaluit, the editors of the Harvard Law Review published a study of an arcane Law of the Sea controversy. With each passing summer, the connection between the two grows with each degree of global warming.
At the center of both the physical and diplomatic climate change of this distant region is a remote sea channel — as much a subject of well-loved folklore as navigational reality — known as the Northwest Passage. For centuries it drew European dreamers and explorers, some of whom left their names and lost their lives in the expanse of bitter cold that is home to the Indigenous peoples who, then as now, regarded the intruders as imperialists.
For years, a controversy — a tempest in an ice bucket, you might say — has raged in the vast empty stretches that are swept each winter by high winds and low temperatures: The United States believes the Northwest Passage connects two international bodies of water and thus is an international strait. Canada believes the passage, freighted with resources and romance, is within its territorial limits and is an internal Canadian waterway.
The question grew more urgent in recent weeks as China, increasingly active in Arctic mineral extraction, pressed to buy a gold mine 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stirred international waters last year when he dismissed Canada’s claim as “illegitimate.”
One of Pompeo’s predecessors in Foggy Bottom, former Secretary of State John Kerry, said the Pompeo remarks grew out of the Trump administration’s diplomatic style. “The fact that this has even become an issue is a reflection of the way we have treated our good neighbor to the north,” he said in an interview. This summer the Trump administration threatened to impose tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel.
As James Kraska, who teaches international maritime law at the U.S. Naval War College and at the Harvard Law School, put it, “both the U.S. and Canada have taken great pains not to make an issue of the very substantial differences they have.”
Even so, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney put it starkly in 1987: The Northwest Passage belongs to Canada “lock, stock and icebergs.” The passage may be becoming more passable, but it is not tranquil.
“It’s still a very dangerous place,” said Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia Arctic affairs expert. “There’s less sea ice but more icebergs — and serious storms. I’ve been in gale winds and 25-foot waves there. Help is a long way away. This isn’t the Straits of Gibraltar. The waters are shallow and poorly mapped.”
Back when the Northwest Passage remained a concept of fantasy and fable — Martin Frobisher’s 16th-century efforts to discover the route, Henry Hudson’s early 17th-century doomed voyages, Sir John Franklin’s lost 19th-century expedition — its ownership wasn’t contested.
Global climate change changed everything — a notion Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, now the country’s deputy prime minister, acknowledged when she said, “We see the conditions of the Northwest Passage changing with our changing climate.”
When Pompeo denounced Canada’s claims at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, Canada’s Freeland, the prime-ministerial heir apparent to Justin Trudeau, responded that “there is both a very strong and geographic connection” between Canada and the Northwest Passage. Soon thereafter leaders of the Inuit Indigenous peoples told the United States the Northwest Passage was part of their Arctic homeland.
Since Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan concluded an Arctic cooperation agreement in 1988, the two countries have agreed to disagree over the ownership of the waterway, and for now, the diplomatic waters are tranquil. The United States promised to seek Canada’s permission before sending a Coast Guard icebreaker through the passage. Canada always grants permission.
In recent years, China, the world’s largest shipping state, has been looking north. As part of its Belt and Road Initiative, China has cast its eyes on what is known as the Arctic’s Northern Sea Route, which runs along the coast of Russia and reduces distances to Europe by more than 3,700 miles. The Chinese have come to call it the “Polar Silk Road.” It is a Northwest Passage by another name.