Northwest Passage Issue

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  • Topic: Arctic, Canada, Northwest Passage
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  • Published : September 4, 2012
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The Northwest Passage Issue
A frosty hornet’s nest
Kirthana Amirthavasani(

I. Introduction
One of the bittersweet occurrences of present times that seem to affect, in different angles and aspects, the general life of many is the navigability of the Northwest Passage[1]. A sea route that took rather many years to discover with the ardent efforts of numerous explorers of yesteryear, many of whom turned around with hopes lost, others succumbing to the irrationality of the nature’s forces and still others growing complacent too early after making their mark somewhere midway only to turn back homeward, is today the subject of great contention world over. The first attempts to navigate through this golden sea route, which weaves through the archipelagic waters of Canada’s many islands of the north, were made by Spanish explorers who termed this waterway ‘The Strait of Anian’, although the Norwegian Vikings had sailed in and around the area having attempted to set up trade relations with the Inuit groups who were occupying this region[2]. Not much came out of these westward explorations but they were precedents to the many subsequent crusading excursions to these isles. The earliest record of documented evidence is that of John Cabot[3] in 1497 who was commissioned by Henry VII to discover a sea route that would lead forthrightly to the Orient. The expedition carried out by Sir John Franklin deserves special mention here as his ships Erabus and Terror were the largest and were highly equipped with an internal heating system to combat cold[4]. Albeit these advantages, both the vessels failed to withstand harsh forces of nature and all its 129 crew members perished from a combination of cold, hunger, scurvy and lead poisoning. By the late 1500s and the early 1600s, explorers like Martin Frobisher, Jacques Cartier and Henry Hudson had each separately tried their luck in discovering this much coveted route that was claimed to reduce trade distances between Europe and the Orient by over 4000 kilometres[5]. This however, didn’t prove to be successful although landmark territories, which are called after them today, were earmarked. The first successful conquest was in 1906, by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen[6] who took three long years, after being trapped in ice for three whole winters. He announced the success of his exploration through a telegram from the coast of Eagle in Alaska. The possibility of navigating through this strait, although seeming absurd then, for it took an unreasonable three years, was a proposition that remained at the back of many minds. Today, with global warming on the rise, the polar ice caps in and around the Arctic are fast depleting. Despite this environmentally hazardous side effect, it opens up the possibility of navigation through the route. The economical pros seem to outweigh the environmental cons. In what is to follow, we shall take a deeper look at the issues at hand from the legal perspective.

1.1. What is the issue?
What seemed an innocent pristine waterway has today become the subject of much debate. The key issues that have so far been brought to the fore are as follows.

a) The question of sovereignty
A closer look at the map points out that this waterway stretches out for about 900 miles from the north of Baffin Island to the Beaufort Sea[7], which is above Alaska. This brings in the question, ‘Whom does this waterway really belong to?’ Is it the sole sovereign possession of Canada? Can it qualify to be an International strait as America claims? Can an amicable solution be sought between the various arctic players who claim that which according to them is a fair share of the cake? The claim over the natural resources of the region’s seabed, beneath the superficial sea is another bone of contention.

b) The environmental debate
The rapid rate at which the polar ice caps are melting is all but a good sign. They...
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