Climate change offers ‘invitation to explore the Arctic’ as marine traffic hits unprecedented levels
The number of boats voyaging through the Canadian Arctic reached a new high in 2019 as ice coverage in the eastern part of that region shrank to a new low, according to preliminary federal statistics.
Data from Environment and Climate Change Canada show ice coverage declines and increased interest in the Canadian Arctic from tourists, resource companies, scientists and others has resulted in unprecedented levels of marine traffic through the region.
“Overall, climate change, the warming of the Arctic, the melting of the ice, is a bit of an invitation to explore the Arctic and places that would not have been as open in the past,” said Neil O’Rourke, the Canadian Coast Guard’s assistant commissioner for the Arctic Region.
“We get more and more folks asking about the logistics of it. Whether that’s adventure tourists or cruise ships, we certainly see more interest,” he said.
In 2019, the shipping season — which generally begins in May and ends when waters freeze, usually some time in October, — passed with few remarkable incidents or rescue operations by the Canadian Coast Guard despite the proliferation of vessels.
A record-high 147 ships entered federally monitored waters in the Canadian Arctic in 2019, data from Environment and Climate Change Canada shows. That’s a 17.6 per cent increase from 2018, but a 70 per cent increase from 2009.
They made a record 368 voyages — defined as every time a ship enters and exits Arctic waters — through the region. A little more than a decade ago, there had never been more than 200 voyages in one season.
Climate change, the warming of the Arctic, the melting of the ice, is a bit of an invitation to explore the Arctic and places that would not have been as open in the past
The increased interest has coincided with a period of strong economic growth as all three Canadian territories have reported gross domestic product growth rates at or above the national average last year. In 2018, Nunavut posted 10 per cent growth driven by construction, mining and other resources development while the Yukon and Northwest Territories grew at 2.8 and 1.9 per cent, respectively, driven largely by construction activities, according to Statistics Canada. The Conference Board of Canada predicts that the combined economies of Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon’s real economic growth is forecast to average 5.3 per cent in 2019 and 4.4 per cent in 2020.
Increasingly, the Canadian Arctic is also facing development interest from mining companies. In Nunavut, at least four gold mines are already operating while another mine has reached an advanced stage of development.
Sean Boyd, chief executive of Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd., the largest gold producer within Canada, has emerged as a vocal advocate for greater federal investment in the region, to unlock the vast mineral resources in the north. This includes greater infrastructure such as roads and energy projects but also higher education facilities to train the population.
This fall, his company opened its second mine in the region since 2016, and Boyd says Agnico has invested $7 billion in Nunavut since 2007.
“We have championed the North and its enormous potential to our international investors and to every politician we’ve ever spoken with,” Boyd said in a speech at the Canadian Club in downtown Toronto in November.
While he has called for greater investment in the region, authorities say that climate change is transforming operating conditions in the region.
This year, ice coverage in the eastern Arctic dipped below five per cent in September, the lowest on record, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada, which keeps statistics dating back to 1968. In that part of the Arctic, ice coverage has dropped below the historical median every year since 2004.
“You know the Arctic is a huge place,” said O’Rourke. “But overall we saw a lot less ice this year.”
That’s in part because the amount of multiyear ice, which remains frozen even during the warmest months, is declining, he said.
Yet, the shrinking ice has created a misperception that ice conditions have become more favourable for marine traffic when in fact they’ve become less predictable, said O’Rourke.
“What you see is a lot more inter-annual variability,” said Gilles Langis, a senior ice forecaster for Environment and Climate Change Canada.
While the shipping season this year largely passed without many search and rescue operations, 2018 was marred by multiple incidents including a cruise ship that became grounded with more than 100 passengers aboard.
That season, a large piece of multiyear ice broke off during a warm spell and drifted into the Northwest Passage where it became lodged and prematurely ended the shipping season in the Western Arctic. Several communities were unable to receive their annual shipments of goods that are too expensive to airlift.
For example, in Cambridge Bay, an entire barge loaded with new pick up trucks, construction materials and other dry goods had to be stored in a warehouse for close to a year until the ice melted the following season and marine traffic resumed.
This season, by contrast, was relatively uneventful with no major reports of missed shipments by either communities or mines.
The Northwest Passage, the fabled route between Baffin Bay and the Beaufort Sea long sought by European explorers as a possible trade route to Asia, is seeing increased traffic from adventurers: it accounted for 40 per cent of all traffic in 2019, and 51 per cent since 2016.
“It’s not as good as headlines, but from our perspective it was a successful (shipping season),” said O’Rourke.