Threats to the Arctic

Walruses swimming with a ship in the background.
Puffin with a beak full of little eels.
The village of Cape Dorset in Arctic Canada at summertime.
The Northwest Passage marked by a red line.

As explained in an earlier chapter, melting Arctic ice is expected to make the Arctic more navigable by boat. Though as pointed out, this makes ocean transport more effective and creates many new business opportunities, it also raises environmental, cultural and legal concerns.

Rescue operations difficult

With regard to the environment, firstly, it has been argued that a large increase in business ventures and traffic in the Arctic could have disruptive effects on precious marine life. Furthermore, a single oil spill or a ship hitting an iceberg here could potentially have much more devastating consequences than similar accidents in other places. This increased risk for disaster is both due to the region’s inhospitable climate, which makes survival and rescue operations difficult, and the fact that few rescue centers and other infrastructure exist so far north.

Cultural concerns

Culturally, moreover, it is believed that a busy Northwest Passage would transform Inuit life. No longer able to sustain themselves by hunting on receding Arctic ice, in a future where boats and people regularly pass through their region, the Inuit will likely increasingly try to make a living from tourism and service industries. The once isolated Inuit, then, would have to open up for visitors and embrace Western businesses, something that could increase the speed at which their old culture is diluted. However, more contact with the outside world, in this way, would also give the Inuit new economic opportunities and a chance to share their unique culture with a large number of people.

A legal debate

Juridically, lastly, there is a contentious legal debate as to whether an ocean highway of worldwide importance through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago should be considered international waters or Canadian waters. The reason for this debate is that the area, historically, has been frozen and considered useless for maritime transport, making it difficult to find an international legal precedent for how to deal with the case.