Canadian Guardians at the North Pole and Other Arctic Musings

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I am in Dutch Harbor, AK as I write this, awaiting arrival of the research ship RV Mirai to board as Ice Navigator for another voyage of research in the Arctic Ocean.  We will depart for the Chukchi Sea the morning of the 31st of October on a mission primarily focused on meteorological data collection in an effort to get a better handle on how Polar Lows develop and progress.  We will also be continuing a full suite of physical, chemical and occasional biological sampling but this year, meteorology is the driver.  It is all part of ongoing valuable annual research, much like what carries on every year in the Canadian Arctic.  Well not quite every year.  This year much of the Canadian routine research within the Canadian Archipelago has been deferred in favour of what some may call a political fancy.

As I arrived in Dutch Harbor yesterday and logged onto the internet the first news story to come up was that of the Canadian Coast Guard Ships Louis S. St. Laurent and Terry Fox successfully reaching the North Pole Wednesday evening.  My first thought was, what an achievement, well done!  I have sailed with some of the people on those ships in the past and I could well imagine how proud they would be, having made the pole as part of a completely Canadian expedition.  This voyage was not like the first Canadian visit to the pole 20 years previously when the Louis was in company with the American icebreaker Polar Sea (and the Russian Nuclear Icebreaker Yamal, much to the chagrin of the joint US/Canadian team as the Yamal charged onto the scene smashing easily through the polar pack that had posed somewhat more of a challenge to the North American ships).  This time it was all-Canadian with the two most powerful icebreakers in the Canadian Coast Guard fleet. The Fox and the Louis are also the two most in need of replacement.  

Instead of the Canadian government focusing on getting those proud and highly professional young women and men the ships they need to safely continue their missions in Arctic ice TWELVE MONTHS a year (not the “three season” capability the present design of Canada’s sole PLANNED polar icebreaker is limited to – but full on 365 day a year capability provided by two or three polar icebreakers), the government wants media moments and sound bites pronouncing, what?  I’m not sure. 

And so my thoughts turned. What had to be sacrificed to enable this mission to the pole, taking the two most powerful Canadian icebreakers out of the “summer fleet” leaving the rest of the fleet to deal with reality of day to day Arctic maritime operations?  Why were these sacrifices made and at what cost?  The story is that the two ships were dispatched to “continue” important survey work in support of Canada’s Arctic UNCLOS claim.  It wasn’t because Canada lacked sufficient data to make their claim by the 2013 deadline, data gained after more than ten years of collaborative surveys with United States, Denmark and even with some sharing of Russian data.  Both ships were sent on a wild goose chase because literally at the last moment (I was told less than 48 hours before the deadline to deliver the UNLCOS submission, already printed bound, packed for transport), the Prime Minister questioned why the North Pole was not part of Canada’s claim.  He was told because the science didn’t support it.  That wasn’t enough.  Researchers, scientists and mariners were ordered to redo the submission, find a way to include the North Pole.  And so Wednesday, two proud Canadian Coast Guard ships made the voyage of a lifetime, crews played hockey at the North Pole and flags were waved proudly.  But at what cost?

Both ships were pulled from what many believe is much more important work further south in the Canadian Archipelago.  Routine ongoing annual scientific research, shipping support and even marine search and rescue standby was deferred or at least capability reduced by the absence of the two heavy icebreakers.  Tremendous quantities of fuel were expended; and a huge additional load was made on vessel support within the Coast Guard, the Canadian Hydrographic Service and Canadian Ice Service.  All those agencies are already taxed to the limit in massive austerity programs so each was forced to take financial, human and other resources from other programs.

I strongly suspect more than $1m, perhaps near $2m has been pulled from preciously guarded and tight budgets to fund a voyage to fuel what?  Any of the scientists or technical folks I know that have any real understanding of UNCLOS and the science of building appropriate claims have been shaking their heads.  If the science was there to claim the pole in the beginning the 2013 submission would have said as much.  But the science wasn’t there.  And that means it likely isn’t there today either. 

If the North Pole, lying along the Lomonsov Ridge, can be claimed be any nation, it is more likely to be Russia or possibly Denmark.  As it was explained to me, the geology indicates the portion of the Lomonosov Ridge that is off North America is more of an extension of the Greenlandic continental shelf than Canada’s.  More likely however the pole likely is in true international waters, many geologists believe the ridge is not an extension of either Eurasia or North America but a point of spreading of major geological plates much like the mid-Atlantic ridge.  If that is the case, Santa truly is international in citizenship.

I sit and I wonder, what did Canada achieve?  Yes we proudly flew our flag, actually we flew two of them from our beautiful red and white Coast Guard ships at the North Pole.  We had a hockey game.  Some incidental science was done along the way in part to try to give the whole thing a reason other than political hubris.  We proved the proud and committed crews of the Canadian Coast Guard can almost do miracles and get two ageing icebreakers to the Pole and hopefully back.  But I would be very surprised if this expensive and potentially wasteful expedition changes the Canadian UNCLOS submission in any appreciable way.

The hoopla is over for the time being.  I sail on the 31st for a much less media worthy, routine, annual research voyage.  No political undertones to this voyage, just 50 odd researchers and technicians collecting data and trying to figure out why Polar Lows do what Polar Lows do.  Somehow that seems far more impressive and necessary to build understanding of how our global climate is changing than Canadian beavers flying flags and thumbing noses at Russian bears.

Does anyone know who won the hockey game at the pole?  My bet is...

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