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Canada’s New Shipping Shortcut


This is a Wendover Productions video made
possible by Hover. Get 10% off your custom Domain from Hover
with the code “Wendover” at checkout. The Arctic will be perhaps the single most
influential region on earth in the coming century and yet almost no-one even lives there. Eight nations have territory above the Arctic
Circle—Denmark though their constituent country: Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden,
Finland, Russia, the United States, and Canada—and they are all in close quarters. This circle represents the distance a plane
can fly in three hours. Most of these countries can reach each other
faster than they watch Titanic. Anchorage, Alaska is, in fact, closer to Tromsø,
Norway than it is to New York because of the short-cut over the pole. Alert, Canada is so close to Tromsø, Norway
that it could be flown by a turboprop plane (Pilatus PC-12 NG.) The only issue is, there’s about to be some
serious money in the high north. The Arctic ice is melting, there’s no question
about that. Some may debate the cause of the melt, but
one cannot debate that there’s simply less ice up north than there was 50 years ago. This melt has profound consequences. Whole countries like Tuvalu and the Maldives
could be largely underwater by the end of the century because of the rising sea levels
from melting ice. But the melt has a different, more obvious
effect—where there was once ice there’s now liquid, navigable water. One of the greatest quests for early explorers
was to find a Northwest Passage—a navigable sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific
Oceans through the Canadian Archipelago. It was long thought to be myth until in 1906
Roald Amundsen and his six crew members arrived at Herchel Island, Canada, having successfully
completed a three-year voyage from Norway via the new Northwest Passage. The significance of the Northwest Passage
is that, until 1914 when the Panama Canal opened, traffic from the Atlantic could only
reach the Pacific by sailing around Cape Horn—the southern tip of South America. This meant that a sea route between London
and San Francisco—5,000 miles apart as the crow flies—took 14,000 miles. This was not efficient. It was a significant hamper to development
to the American west coast. The Northwest passage would’ve revolutionized
maritime trade—if it wasn’t covered in ice. Roald Amundsen’s ship, the Gjøa, was small
enough that it could snake through and slide over ice. Some of the waterways Amundsen took were as
few as three feet deep—far too shallow for the increasingly large commercial ships of
the time. More than 100 years later, in September of
2013, however, for the very first time, a commercial bulk carrier, the MS Nordic Orion,
transited an almost ice-free Northwest Passage on its journey from Vancouver, Canada to Pori,
Finland, and this was far from a publicity stunt. This ship saved $80,000 in fuel costs and
was able to take 25% more cargo than if it had gone through the Panama Canal. Even thousand passenger cruise ships are now
making the journey. Ironically, global warming is actually opening
a route that’s better for the environment. China is a country with a vested interest
in the navigability of the northwest passage. As an economy largely based on manufacturing
for the western world, their maritime accessibility has an enormous effect on their national wellbeing. A reduction in time and cost of shipping to
the American east coast would renew their competitiveness in the manufacturing industry
against emerging rivals such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. As China industrialized largely thanks to
its manufacturing industry the standard of living in the country increased which correspondently
increased labour costs. China’s Maritime Safety Administration,
recognizing the imminent explosion in usage, recently published a 356 page guide to navigating
the northwest passage and the country has announced plans to send more and more commercial
shipping traffic through the passage in the coming summers. The introduction of maritime traffic to the
northwest passage could present a significant opportunity for Canada. The northern territories of Canada, through
which northwest passage runs, are historically underdeveloped. Less than 120,000 people live in the Yukon,
the Northwest territories, and Nunavut. That’s less than the population of Saguenay—a
town small enough that you probably haven’t even heard of it—living in an area larger
than the entire country of India. It’s not all that surprising considering
just how inhospitable the area is, but other places at similar latitudes such as Anchorage,
Longyearbyen, and Murmansk have managed to overcome the conditions thanks to the money
that can be made in the far north. If a large chunk of the worlds maritime traffic
heads through the Canadian north, industry will develop to support these ships. Except, there’s a problem. Despite the general friendliness of most of
the arctic countries, there are geopolitical issues in the high north. Even more surprisingly, one of them is between
the US and Canada. When there’s a navigation choke-point restricting
certain countries from accessing an ocean, it’s convention to declare that waterway
an international waterway. For example, the Danish Straits—fully surrounded
by Denmark—are an international waterway in order to give the Baltic and Scandinavian
countries ocean access; the Turkish straits, fully surrounded by Turkey, are international
waterways to give the black sea countries ocean access; and the Danube River is an international
waterway to give landlocked Austria, Hungary, Moldova, Serbia, and Slovakia ocean access. When a waterway is declared an international
waterway no country can restrict access or charge dues to passing boats except during
a time of war. Canada considers the waterways comprising
the northwest passage in their archipelago as their own waters. In the past nobody challenged this since there
was no reason anyone would cross through these frozen waters. With its promise to cut shipping routes by
thousands of miles, the northwest passage will almost certainly become an important
shipping route so that’s why countries like the US firmly believe that the northwest passage
should be and already is an international waterway. One of the tensest moments in history between
the US and Canada was when, in 1985, a US Coast Guard Icebreaker travelled through the
northwest passage without prior permission from Canada. In Canada’s mind, this was a military invasion
of their sovereign territory—debatably an act of war. Canada argues that the northwest passage is
not an international waterway because it has failed to meet an important criteria—usefulness. Of course the northwest passage is useful
on paper—it shortens the route between the oceans—but Canada has pointed out that in
previous cases determining whether a waterway is international, what proves a route’s
usefulness is if a significant number of ships have already successfully transited it. In the northwest passage’s case, the number
of successful commercial journeys is in the double digits. There’s also merit to Canada’s argument
that the passage should be their sovereign waters. Currently, Canada has almost no search-and-rescue
capabilities in their archipelago. Since there’s almost no traffic yet, there’s
no real reason to spend the money to put ships and aircraft up there. Most previous journeys have been highly coordinated
and often escorted by the Canadian Coast Guard. If a ship just went through with no prior
coordination nowadays and sank, however, there would be almost no chance of rescue for the
victims. If in a few summers hundreds of ships transit
the passage, Canada would have an obligation to put resources in the northern provinces
for the safety of both the country and sailors and that takes money. If treated as an internal waterway, Canada
could charge passage fees just as there are for the Panama or Suez Canal—the other major
shipping shortcuts of the world. These could fund the infrastructure needed
to safety regulate and police the route. But on the other hand, should one country
have the capability to chose who can get from the Pacific to Atlantic faster? Letting, for example, Vietnamese ships through
the route but banning Chinese ships would make the Chinese goods uncompetitive for the
Western European and Eastern American market. Canada would have the capability to choose
which economies can succeed and which will fail. There’s a reason the issue’s so contentious. Scientists disagree on the exact date, but
there’s a general consensus that by the year 2050 there will be a summer when there
is no ice in the Arctic. This will have enormous and irreversible consequences
on our globe, but it could further revolutionize how we get our goods. An ice-free arctic will open up the greatest
shipping short-cut in the world—the Arctic Ocean. Ships traveling between Japan and western
Europe, for example, instead of heading south, across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez
Canal, and across the Mediterranean sea, will be able to head north through the bering strait,
directly across the arctic ocean, and down between Greenland and Norway to Europe. That’s a 7,000 mile route compared to the
13,000 mile route of today. That has the potential to slash shipping prices
in half. That means cheaper products across the entire
world. But at what cost. Every degree of climate warming in the US
alone is expected to cause $144 billion dollars per year of economic loss. If the US climate warms by 12 degrees, which
the EPA says is possible by 2100, the US can expect to lose more than $1.7 trillion per
year—that’s more than a full percent of its GDP. On top of that, by 2050, climate change is
expected to cause more than 250,000 deaths per year. Surely that can’t be worth it for some cheaper
goods. This video was made possible by Hover. I recently bought two new domains with Hover—the
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