Friday, August 10, 2007

Canada to flex military muscles in Arctic

Canada to flex military muscles in Arctic
By Daina Lawrence in Ottawa and Clive Cookson in London
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: August 9 2007 22:34 | Last updated: August 9 2007 22:34

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is poised to announce plans for a deepwater docking facility and military base in the far north of the country as part of the nation’s quest to assert its sovereignty in the Arctic.

Military planning documents, obtained by CBC news on Thursday, outline C$60m ($57m) plans to adapt an abandoned mine in Nanisivik at the northern tip of Baffin Island into a naval station.

A separate army base will also be located in Resolute, Nunuvut, on the shores of the disputed Northwest Passage. The base would give Canada the military resources it needs to monitor traffic in the Arctic’s Northwest Passage, according to Pierre Leblanc, former commander of the Canadian Forces in the North.

“The military forces we have up in the north is less than 400, and that’s to look after an area that is larger than Europe,” says Mr Leblanc. “So any addition the government puts up there is significant.”

At present the Northwest Passage remains free to all navigation, although Canada claims ownership over the much-coveted waterway and shipping route. This is causing reaction from foreign countries, with Russia flexing its muscles by planting a titanium flag on the Arctic seabed and the US Coast Guard sending an icebreaker vessel toward the Bering Sea.

“Canada is open to being used as a maritime navigable way, but we want to control what goes on there. We are claiming this as internal waters,” says Mr Leblanc. “To be able to control it you have to know what’s going on and right now we don’t.”

Warmer temperatures in the Arctic are causing commodities such as oil and gas to become accessible and, therefore, valuable in the area, with the known gas reserves exceeding C$200bn.

At the heart of the international dispute over territorial rights is the Lomonosov Ridge. This huge undersea feature stretches 1,800km from the tip of Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island, under the North Pole, to the coast of Siberia. The scientific and legal question is whether Lomonosov can be regarded as a natural extension of the continental shelf of Russia, Canada or the Danish territory of Greenland.

The International Convention on the Law of the Sea allows a country to extend its territorial waters beyond the usual 200 nautical miles (or 320km) if it can prove that the sea bed is connected geologically to it in this way.

Ralph Rayner, vice-president of the London-based Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology, says more geological mapping needs to be done before the conflicting claims can be resolved.

In spite of global warming, the Arctic Ocean is still covered with thick ice for most of the year, making survey work very difficult.

“The Arctic was of little geological interest until recently,” said Dr Rayner. “A lot of surveying of the sea floor was carried out during the Cold War but the topographical data is still largely classified.”

Ironically the revival of territorial disputes over the Arctic is taking place against the background of International Polar Year, an intense scientific programme taking place from March 2007 to March 2009 meant to foster international collaboration.

The controversial Russian submarine expedition that left a flag on the ocean floor was carried out under the auspices of IPY. The move carried echoes of the Soviet launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, as part of International Geophysical Year in 1957.


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