Climate change, due to an increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Earth’s atmosphere, is affecting all aspects of life in the Arctic. It particularly impacts the region very sensitive climate and its hydro and ecological systems. One of the peculiarities of global warming is that it becomes stronger as it moves closer to high latitudes, and therefore to the poles of both hemispheres of the planet. These regions are said to be warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world; they are the climate regulator of the entire globe. As a result, global warming is impacting each Arctic country, including Canada. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates the certainty of global warming resulting in a temperature 1.5°C higher than the pre-industrial era, and the high probability of the temperature being 2°C higher. In all cases, and even more so in the case of the Arctic, this poses risks to “health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth.”
The primary consequence of this warming in the region is the melting of the sea ice and the thawing of the permafrost, which sets in motion a number of chain reactions with disastrous consequences. The paradox of this region is that these changes are both a threat and an opportunity. On the one hand, it is an environmental disaster threatening all countries in multiple ways (leading, for example, to fires, floods, epidemics, famines, and migration). On the other hand, it also creates many new strategic opportunities, especially for the Arctic countries, as well as those claiming to be “near Arctic” (e.g. China). This hot take therefore highlights some direct impacts of climate change on Canada as both a threat and an opportunity, as well as the impacts arising from the increasing attractiveness of the Arctic (such as through economic opportunities).
The Differing Ways in Which the Effects of Global Warming in the Arctic Impact Canada
Given the extent of global warming, the Arctic is a high-stake area for Canada. First, the melting sea ice facilitates access to the natural resources of the Arctic region and, therefore, also facilitates their exploitation. This region is known to be abundant in minerals (including diamonds, gold, lead, zinc, nickel, uranium, iron, and rare earths), but hypothetical figures on hydrocarbon reserves in arctic subsoil, such as gas and oil, were also mentioned. The North Pole is believed to be home to 13% of the world’s oil reserves and 30% of the world’s gas reserves.
In addition, the Arctic Sea is rich in fish, and this resource will become easier to access and exploit. It is normally necessary to use special boats as well as icebreakers to fish in this region. However, the reduction of the ice and its possible disappearance during the summer months by the end of the 2030s will allow easier access and lead to a greater number of actors engaging in fishing. Nonetheless, increased intensive fishing in this region can greatly contribute to the scarcity of resources, causing serious environmental damage and harming the supply available to local populations (including Canadian populations). The problems of variation of the thermohaline circulation of water, responsible for the circulation of water currents on the planet (the density of water is affected both by its temperature and by its salinity rate) will affect, among other things, fishery resources and all other arctic fauna. It will also make access to food more difficult for local Canadian populations. Thus, initially, fishery resources will be more accessible to Canadian fishing thanks to the reduction in ice. However, in a second step, the harmful effects mentioned above will make it difficult for these local populations to feed themselves and to be self-sufficient with the available resources, as well as rendering access to these resources by land or ice more difficult. This phenomenon of resource scarcity in Canadian waters will also contribute to the probable intensification of international fishing activities in the region.
The direct impact of global warming and the environmental crisis on resources, along with the enthusiasm it generates for the exploitation of Arctic natural resources, is causing adverse effects. These factors simultaneously contribute to the accelerated degradation of the Arctic environment, while also altering the renewal of natural resources (such as marine and terrestrial flora and fauna), in a vicious self-sustaining circle. Given their diffuse nature, these effects do not stop at national barriers. In addition, these changes make it more difficult for local populations to meet their basic needs, impacting their way of life and, indeed, their ability to survive.
Logically, we also know that this melting ice gives rise to several potential national and international sea routes, in particular the Northwest Passage on the Canadian and United States sides, and the Northern Sea Route on the Russian side (northeast) between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A third, lesser-known passage is the Arctic Bridge connecting the ports of Moscow (Russia) and Churchill (Canada), useful for bringing Russian oil to North American markets. Finally, a transpolar route crossing the Arctic Ocean is also considered. Maritime traffic will, for different reasons, experience a great increase thanks to these routes: firstly, for the exploitation of different resources mentioned earlier. Then, the incentive grows to take advantage of the shortcuts offered by these sea routes. For example, these routes connect, in the case of the Northwest Passage on the Canadian side, Europe and Asia. This route is, in fact, 30% to 40% shorter than routes passing through the Suez Canal or the Panama Strait. In addition to these prospects for commercial and industrial navigation facilitating trade, there is also the possibility of growth in tourist cruises in the region. It is therefore easy to see the potential for more crossings in the territorial waters of Canada that are not subject to “the rights of innocent passage and transit”.
It should also be noted that the facilitation of access to these maritime routes paradoxically makes navigation even more dangerous and uncertain in these areas because of the multiplication of icebergs and polar lows (unpredictable cyclones forming over ice-free areas of seawater). This increases the risk of boats having accidents, and of natural disasters resulting from these accidents depending on the cargo (for example, the risk of oil spill or extreme pollution). Furthermore, the development of floating nuclear power plants, as Russia produced for the first time in 2019, can cause severe environmental damage if there are accidents. Notwithstanding, navigation in the Arctic also presents strong commercial constraints which impact the profitability of transport. Although the distances are shorter, they require more effort from the boats (and therefore a significant amount of fuel consumption) and they travel at slower speeds towards their destination. Moreover, the few, if not complete absence of, secondary port destinations in this area makes travelling such long distances less economically profitable. Likewise, there are also high additional costs such as insurance costs (driven by the difficulties of operating in Arctic conditions and high-risk maritime regions), or icebreaker services for which Russia requires payment.
Climate change therefore allows Canada to see potential new maritime routes being formed and become more accessible, but also makes such routes dangerous because of the uncertainties associated with drifting icebergs. This therefore implies an intensification of navigation in its territorial waters. For now, Canada can continue to deny the passage of foreign vessels through the Northwest Passage if such vessels are seen to pose a risk to the environment. Indeed, ships are in themselves an increased risk, representing potential sources of pollution (linked to crossings or goods in the event of an accident), accidents of all kinds (collisions, damage caused by ice, capsizing, grounding, shipwrecks), and raising the possibility of offenses relating to the rules of navigation or delimitation of Canadian territory. Climate change also makes it possible to navigate a road bordering the coast, allowing access to a greater number of areas that are remote and hitherto very difficult to reach. It will therefore be possible to reach them in order to supply local Canadian populations, as well as making it easier to develop maritime trade with them. It should be noted that these new routes will be accessible to a greater number of types of boats due to less extreme navigation conditions (for example, the more limited need for icebreakers).
Arctic populations, including those of Canada, are also affected by global warming. One of the many concerns is the melting sea ice and permafrost. The Arctic is a great source of drinking water, and ice has been an excellent trap for capturing toxic agents that have circulated in the water for decades. The melting sea ice is therefore endangering part of the drinking water reserves while freeing these previously imprisoned toxic agents. Consequently, these agents contaminate the fresh water that circulates in this region and is used and consumed by the Canadian populations. Melting glaciers and permafrost also raise water levels, which can cause inhabited and built-up coastal areas to fall below sea level and thus be destroyed.
The thawing of the permafrost is also having a negative impact on Arctic populations. Its ice gave it its insulating and waterproof property, it allowed the natural freshwater lakes to be maintained, and the land to be solid enough to accommodate the construction of the infrastructure necessary for the development of life in the region. With the disappearance of their ice layer, the soils lose their solidity and waterproof properties. As a result, the reserves of fresh water contained in the lakes will disappear, making access to this basic resource even more difficult for people to find. The soils will become unstable and swampy. This calls into question any strategic construction or construction linked to the development of the region (such as bridges, rails, roads, and buildings). Greenhouse gas emissions hitherto trapped in the ground will also escape, fuelling global warming and its consequences.
Policy Considerations and Recommendations for Canada
Regarding the first environmental concern related to resources and pollution, Canada could consider instituting or renewing the rules concerning fishing quotas for state-driven fishing in Canadian Arctic waters. But it should also try to propose preventive regulation of activities to the Arctic international governance bodies of which it is a member, such as the Arctic Council or the Northern Dimension (where it is an observer member). Checking the dissuasive nature of sanctions for breaking the rules and tightening them up if necessary is also an interesting avenue for ensuring the effectiveness of the rules.
It is also possible to envisage the creation of a successful regulation on the type of fuel used by maritime transport, which is currently still too polluting. We could also think of the delimitation of protected areas in the form of land or sea parks, as well as maintaining an inventory of flora and fauna inhabiting the environment in order to ensure that they are maintained. In terms of facilitating the exploitation of resources, as well as their channeling and distribution, this can help, to a certain extent, in the commercial development of the region. It could then be judicious to think of a port development project with multiple objectives (as outlined below), along the Canadian territorial coast.
Recommendations that can be made about roads and marine traffic are as follows: Canada may need to establish surveillance cooperation with the United States with respect to its northern archipelago, for which it is more difficult to maintain surveillance for proper compliance with maritime rules. It is also likely that the Canadian government will have to prepare to accept the navigation of foreign vessels in these waters when the ice makes navigation fully possible.
The Canadian government could invest in more equipment and intervention and rescue groups to optimize their effectiveness in the event of an accident, as well as strengthen international cooperation to ensure the safety of maritime routes (including more rescue teams and better logistics to bring aid and assistance to boats in distress). Increased monitoring of the water may be necessary to enhance knowledge of the traffic, ensure compliance with national and international boundaries, and provide better guidance to boats. The construction of ports along the coasts would serve to secure the passage of boats through providing possible stops along the way, while facilitating the delivery of supplies to the Canadian populations in these regions.
With the changes occurring in the natural Arctic environment in Canada, the living conditions of Canadian populations in the Arctic are therefore seriously endangered (including through contamination, depletion of freshwater reserves, or even an unstable soil that is not conducive to existing infrastructure remaining functional). Although certain persistent organic pollutant (POP) contaminants such as PCBs (chlorinated biphenyls) and DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) are no longer used in industrialized countries, they are still common in certain regions of the world, such as Africa or South America. To this, can be added the general rise in sea level which will obviously affect Canada’s territorial coasts. Nevertheless, 46% of the Arctic population is living in these coastal areas.
The problem of access to safe water for Canadians is of great concern. As a first step, recommending more tests on the quality of the local water can allow inhabitants to adopt a behavior adapted for their health (providing the choice of the consumption of boiled or bottled water). It is then important to act preventively. Canada could perhaps present to international governing bodies (for example, the UN, or Arctic bodies) a request to tighten the rules for the use of contaminants in the same way as was the case for mercury. Canada could also propose an extension of the list of those contaminants to be banned completely in order to prevent their appearance in water and the future contamination of the environment, as well as of the resources consumed by the Canadian Arctic populations.
Finally, it makes sense to continue to think about potential solutions and new visions of the appropriate occupation of the Arctic region, given the changing reality of the soils. It is therefore important to invest in research and development in order to reflect on and develop new types of adequate infrastructure. In the meantime, it is also important to be proactive and move populated areas as far as possible away from the coast. It is possible to think of the use of new infrastructures on stilts integrating the expensive “thermosyphons” technology in order to avoid the heating of the ground caused by heated buildings.