The Canadian Arctic

The dominant feature of the Canadian Arctic region is the Arctic Ocean. It may be described as the portion of the world ocean lying within the Arctic Circle (66° 32 2/3 ' North). It has a total area of approximately 14 million square kilometres and is bounded by Russia, Canada, the United States and Greenland. Continental shelf comprises slightly more than half of the ocean area.10

The points of entry to and egress from the Arctic Ocean are restricted to the Bering Strait, the Canadian Arctic Archipelagic waters and the Davis Strait, the Greenland/Iceland/U.K. gap, and the Denmark and Baltic Straits. While there are numerous islands around the periphery, the Arctic Ocean has been described as a basin since its central waters are island-free and deep.11 The Canadian Arctic Archipelago is made up of 73 major islands of more than 50 square-miles in area and approximately 18,114 smaller islands, and the Archipelago extends almost 1000 miles north from the mainland coast.

The Arctic Ocean is covered by approximately 5.2 million square kilometres of ice in the summer and 11.7 million square kilometres in the winter. There are two categories of ice-cover: pack ice – ice which has accumulated over many years – and winter (or annual) ice – which has formed over a single season. The pack ice has an average thickness between 3 and 3.5 metres and tends to have rougher upper and lower surfaces than does annual ice. These ice surfaces can vary in thickness from a few inches to nearly 200 feet.12 A "lead" or "polynya" occurs where a tear or fissure in the pack ice has exposed open water.13 Other tears and fissures can create vertical "sails" of ice above the water surface and "keels" below. The ice normally drifts in a clock-wise direction around the Arctic Ocean and its movement is influenced by the currents flowing in and out of the straits, as well as the wind.14

Surface travel is possible along the southern limits of the Arctic Ocean. The Northern Sea Route (or Northeast Passage) passes north of Russia through the straits between the large coastal islands and the Siberian mainland. The Northwest Passage north of Canada has an approximate length of 2,850 nautical miles and is made up of at least five proven routes of which two are suitable for navigation by surface vessels with a draft up to 20 m15 and three are suitable for navigation by submerged submarines.16

The eastern approaches to the Northwest Passage are dominated by icebergs calved from the glaciers on Northwestern Greenland, Ellesmere Island, and Devon Island which have drifted south towards the Canadian coast.17 The Labrador Current carries them to the waters off Newfoundland. In the western approaches to the Passage in the Beaufort Sea, there is a first-year ice transition zone of 50 to 100 miles in width between pack ice and the coastal fast ice. This channel has been suitable for surface-vessel navigation from the end of June until October.

The unique physical characteristics of the Arctic Ocean – significant ice-cover, large supply of fresh water from the Eurasian and North American watersheds and restricted "chokepoints" – not only cause the Arctic Ocean to be highly susceptible to hydrographic "disruptions", but these may in turn trigger even greater changes in global ocean circulation and climate. For example, the cold Arctic waters flowing into the North Atlantic help to propel the Atlantic Conveyor – this oceanic heat pump sends cold deep water southward which is returned from the tropics as warm surface water known as the Gulfstream – and in its turn serves to moderate the climate of the North Atlantic region, and the Earth's climate generally.18

Because the physical processes supporting this oceanic heat pump – also known as "thermohaline circulation" - is not yet fully understood, the recent data concerning the rate of reduction of ice volume in the Arctic region has prompted alternate predictions of its effect upon the ice-cover in the Canadian Arctic. Recent data suggests that the Arctic Ocean ice-cover is losing 10% of its volume per decade, rather than the earlier estimates of 3% of its volume. Linear analysis of this data prompted a projection in 2004 by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and International Arctic Science Committee that the Canadian Arctic will experience entire summer seasons of nearly ice-free conditions as early as 2050, but probably not before 2100.19

Two other recent studies have posited far more abrupt changes to the Arctic Ocean over the next decades once certain "tipping points" are reached. One study has proposed that the annual ice will experience a quick retreat over the next 30 to 50 years and another has suggested that the ice could experience an abrupt retreat over a period of ten years if a "tipping point" has been reached.20

While there may be disagreement about the pace of change, there is a scientific consensus that the Arctic Ocean will experience a significant reduction of ice cover over the coming decades. In the broader context of global climate change, there will be increased stress to energy supplies as a result of the uncertain climactic conditions and the adjustments required by the energy distribution and transportation systems. However, the most significant change will occur with the new shipping opportunities that may develop in the Arctic Ocean. While there is a disagreement about the immediate prospects of increased freedom of surface navigation in the Northwest Passage21, the potential for more commercial uses and military operations in Arctic waters, including Canadian waters in the Beaufort Sea and Arctic Archipelago, will be significantly enhanced.22

The recent volatility of the global oil and gas markets has served to renew interest in Arctic offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling.23 Further, the questions of transporting that oil and gas to established and emerging markets have prompted commercial and government investment in Arctic pipelines24 and consideration of the use of the Northwest Passage for international tanker traffic.

These developments will more likely come to pass if the global demand for oil and gas continues to increase with the emergence of new consumer economies.25 There is currently no excess capacity in the existing refining and transportation infrastructure and this in turn causes the entire oil and gas supply system to be extremely pricesensitive and responsive to any sudden restrictions to supply.26 This lack of excess capacity also exposes the complex and expensive oil and gas transportation infrastructure as a critical strategic vulnerability, and liable to targeting states and terrorists. Infrastructure destruction could cause grievous harm to both Canadian and global economic interests.27

While the New York Times has identified the Arctic waters and seabed as the arena of the next "Great Game" between global powers seeking to attain commercial or economic advantage28, it should be recalled that beneath the surface of these same waters an intense Cold War submarine competition has been waged in what was generally regarded as a central theatre of naval operations.29 The competitive jockeying inherent in a multi-polar world order may provide the impetus to revive the political imperative to maintain or deny a credible submarine strategic threat.

The geopolitical factors that contribute to the deployment of nuclear submarines into the Arctic Ocean and waters of the Arctic Archipelago include: the unique qualities of ice-covered and ice-infested waters and their impact upon anti-submarine warfare (ASW)30; the centrality of the Arctic Ocean in the Northern hemisphere; the "chokepoint" access to and egress from the Arctic Ocean and its consequential suitability as a defensive bastion31; the improvements to ballistic and cruise missile technology32; and, at least in the waters of the Canadian Archipelago, no indigenous defensive threat to be avoided.

Indeed, it has been suggested that there are three types of submarine operations that might be conducted in the waters of the Canadian Arctic archipelago: transit between the Arctic Ocean basins and the North Atlantic; launch of cruise missiles; and surveillance or ASW patrol.33 An illustration of the value of the Northwest Passage as a nuclear submarine transit route was provided in the summer of 1962 when the USS Skate sailed the 1000-nm Parry Channel in 2.5 days.34 Further, the development of ballistic missile defence systems has jeopardized the effectiveness of intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Instead, the "ground-hugging" flight profiles enjoyed by cruise missiles allows them to evade electronic defence systems and elevates their status as the preferred strategic weapon. However, their reduced ranges will force any nuclear cruise missile submarines targeting areas of southern Canada and northern U.S. to operate in close proximity to the mainland.35 Finally, the command and control requirements of strategic missile submarines limit the possibilities for patrolling to areas where communications antennae can be raised. These areas include Lancaster and Smith Sounds, the Davis Strait, Amundsen Sound and the Gulf of Boothia in the summer season, and southern Davis Strait to Hudson Bay in the remainder of the year.36

The challenges presented by Arctic submarine operations serve to narrow any technical advantages in ASW enjoyed by front-rank navies in southern waters and may well entice more combatants to conduct polar operations than simply the Russian or NATO navies. However, the operational challenges of operating beneath the ice in Arctic waters must not be under-estimated. The piloting of large submarines with relatively brittle control surfaces and propulsion gear in shallow-draft waters, in proximity to deep-draft ice that is constantly moving, in water with ever-changing temperature and salinity levels affecting buoyancy, requires a sophisticated standard of practiced seamanship. In addition to the usual challenges of submarine operations, the requirement for forwardlooking sonar capable of detecting ice keels and polynas, accurate depth sounding, precise inertial guidance systems, and reliable polar communications, all present substantial challenges to navies wishing to conduct polar operations.37 Further, the predicted futures of a more unsettled climate and broadened areas of ice-infestation (rather than ice-covered) in the Arctic will most likely create a dramatically more difficult environment to conduct ASW operations, and entice even more navies to conduct Arctic operations.38

To summarize, Arctic waters including the waters of the Arctic Archipelago will become increasingly attractive and accessible to commercial interests wishing to take advantage of polar transit routes or simply transporting resources such as oil and gas from expanded Arctic drilling sites to southern markets. However, it is a misreading of Canada's strategic quandary to argue that her Arctic maritime challenges can be met solely by law enforcement. It must not be overlooked that those same waters continue to possess the physical qualities that make them attractive to navies for the conduct strategic nuclear patrols. This attraction will force other States in their turn to respond by conducting strategic under-ice defensive ASW operations.39

These tandem strategic challenges present Canada with a complex operational environment in which to exercise its sovereign rights within its historic internal waters. The character of its legal position will directly influence the choice of the naval or marine security operation required to meet those challenges.


10 The Arctic Ocean includes the Norwegian, Barents, Beaufort, Chukchi, East Siberian, Laptev, Greenland and Kara seas, Baffin Bay and the waters of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (Queen Elizabeth Islands and Sverdrup Islands). The proportion of continental shelf to ocean surface area is significantly greater than in any other ocean.

11 The dominant undersea feature in the Arctic Ocean is the Lomonosov Ridge which extends 1,700 km from the New Siberian Islands to Ellesmere Island. On the Pacific side of the ridge are two deep basins – the Markarov Deep and the Canada Deep – and on the Atlantic side are two more – the Eurasia Deep and the Fram Deep.

12 Capt(N) T.M. Le Marchand, "Under Ice Operations", U.S. Naval War College Review, May-June 1985, 19-27, 21: “The unevenness of its thickness is caused by the continual tearing, grinding and compression of the 'raft' [of pack ice] as it is acted upon by the currents and landmasses.” 

13 Robert M. Bone, The Geography of the Canadian North: Issues and Challenges, 2nd ed., (Oxford University Press, 2003) at 41; Marchand, supra note 12 at 21: Leads or polynyas can be several miles in length and several hundred yards in width. They occur year-round and occupy approximately 10% of the ice pack surface area. There has been a large polynya in northern Baffin Bay in Smith Sound for several decades called the "North Water".

14 Peter Hayden, "The Strategic Importance of the Arctic: Understanding the Military Issues" (March 1987) DND Strategic Issues Paper No. 1/87 at 5: Since none of the factors which influence the sea-ice drift, movement, coverage, and thickness are constant, under-ice activities are based upon prevailing conditions rather than upon predictions.

15 Donat Pharand, Canada's Arctic Waters in International Law (Cambridge University Press, 1988) at 189-193. The first of the two main routes passes through the Prince of Wales Strait, the Parry Channel, Lancaster Sound, Baffin Bay and the Davis Strait, and the second route transits M'Clure Strait into Parry Channel, north of Prince of Wales Strait.

16 The Nares Strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island is the most direct route, the Parry Channel south of the Queen Elizabeth Islands, and finally, Jones Sound through the Cardigan Strait and the channels through the Sverdrup Islands, are all navigable by submerged nuclear submarine.

17 Hayden, supra note 14 at 6. Up to 50,000 individual icebergs are found off the Canadian coast each season. They can have drafts in excess of 100 m and pose significant navigational hazards to both submarines and surface vessels.

18 Richard F. Pittenger and Robert B. Gagosian, "Global Warming Could Have a Chilling Effect on the Military" (October 2003) 33 Defense Horizons 2, The complex relationship between the oceans and the weather continues to be the subject of much scientific research.

19 Arctic Marine Transport Workshop Report at 5, held at Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge University, United Kingdom, 28-30 September 2004. Available online at

20 According to Marika M. Holland, Cecelia M. Bitz, and Bruno Tremblay, "Future abrupt reductions in summer Arctic sea ice" (December 2006) 33 Geophysical Research Letters 1, the retreat of ice-cover is caused by relationships involving icethickness and salinity changes in the Arctic Conveyor to the Arctic Ocean and that when a "tipping point" in that relationship is reached, the annual ice may retreat quickly over the next 30 to 50 years. On the other hand, according to Pittenger and Gagosian, supra note 18 at 4-5 , the salinity changes in Northern waters caused by a breach in the Arctic halocline – the thin layer of sea ice and fresh water which prevents the rising warmer salt water from melting the bottom surface of the ice – may in turn disrupt the Ocean Conveyor and induce, over only a few years, cooler unsettled weather in the North Atlantic region that could persist for decades. This cooling would involve colder temperatures in Eastern North America and Western Europe, a stormier North Atlantic, and decreased ice cover in the Arctic Ocean.

21 Franklyn Griffiths, "The Shipping News: Canada's Arctic Sovereignty Not On Thinning Ice" 58 Int'l J. 257 at 263, has argued that the “inline sovereignty-on-thinning-ice thesis is built on untenable assumptions of relatively speedy and undifferentiated ice-cover reduction throughout the archipelago and indeed the Arctic region as a whole. It minimizes variation and relies on assumptions of uniformity in constructing grounds for international challenge to Canada's jurisdiction.” Rob Huebert, on the other hand, has argued in "The Shipping News, Part II: How Canada's Arctic Sovereignty is on Thinning Ice" 58 Int'l J. 295, that the longer seasons of ice-free sailing will increase international interest in both transits – because the potential savings are so attractive - and in destinations such as the port of Churchill. As observed by Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies: “Some experts predict that the entire Arctic could be ice free by 2013, others say that this will happen by 2050 …. Our own Canadian Ice Service, however, believes the various internal waterways known as the Northwest PASSAGE will not likely be a reliable commercial shipping route for decades owing to extreme ice variability.” Oliver Moore and Paul Koring, "Arctic losing thick sea ice, U.S. data show" Globe and Mail (7 April 2009) A8.

22 Lee Berthiaume, "Northwest Passage Closer to Reality" Embassy (17 January 2007) 1. The Russian and Manitoban governments are working together to develop air and maritime cargo routes across the Arctic Ocean.

23 Oran R. Young, "The Age of the Arctic" (Winter 1985-86) 61 Foreign Policy 169, also in David Larson, Security Issues and the Law of the Sea (University Press of America, 1994) at 171: It has been estimated that the Arctic region holds between 100 to 200 billion barrels of recoverable oil and approximately 2,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Of that total of oil, it is estimated that there are approximately 50 billion barrels of oil in the North American Arctic. Todd Wilkinson, "Alaskan oil battle may shift offshore: Environmentalists warn of oil exploration in Beaufort Sea" The Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 2003: The potential of recoverable oil and natural gas in the Beaufort Sea have been estimated at 4 to 12 billion barrels and 13 to 63 trillion cubic feet respectively. Andy Hoffman, "Nautilus set to make ocean mining a reality" Globe and Mail (8 December 2006) B14. Besides the interest in fossil fuels, there have also been sizable investments in recent years in the Arctic mining of diamonds and minerals such as lead-zinc and poly-metallic sulfides from the seabed.

24 Claudia Cattaneo and Jon Harding, "Pipeline Plugged: Frustrated firms halt Mackenzie gas project" National Post (29 April 2005). John Ibbitson, "Alaska Pipeline Next On Agenda" Globe and Mail (25 February 2005).

25 Robert Samuelson, "A New Era for Oil" Washington Post (30 March 2005). Of the world's total consumption of 84 million barrels per day (MMBD), America consumes the most at 21 MMBD, and China is now second at 6.4 MMBD. It is anticipated that Chinese demand could double by 2020. This projection is based upon the CSIS study by Anthony Cordesman, The Changing Balance of US and Global Dependence on Middle Eastern Energy Exports, (Center for Strategic and International Studies, revised March 20, 2005).

26 Dan Ackman, "The Coming Oil Crisis" (13 January 2005) at As noted by Stephen Leeb, "There is no margin of error", since currently, the world has almost no excess supply. The planet is operating at anywhere from 95% to 99% capacity and the only way that the system could respond is continued oil price increases. According to Cordesman, supra note 25 at 29, It has been calculated that for every one million barrels per day (1 MMBD) of oil disrupted, world oil prices could increase by $3-$5 per barrel.

27 Gail Luft and Anne Korin, "Terror's Next Target" (Winter 2004) Journal of International Security Affairs 95 at 97. Not only is oil a valuable target, but it is a "soft" one as well. Oil targets are so vulnerable that in 2002 and 2003, despite intensive counter-terror measures, oil terrorism has become a matter of routine. Paul Parfomak, Pipeline Security: An Overview of Federal Activities and Current Policy Issues, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, Updated February 5, 2004, RL3 1990. Pipelines serve as unique strategic targets since 40% of the world's oil supply flows through pipelines. See also Ian MacLeod, "Canadian Oil: Target of Terror: Al-Qaeda group calls for attacks as way to disrupt U.S. supply" Ottawa Citizen (14 February 2007) A1.

28 Clifford Krauss, Steven Lee Myers, Andrew C. Revkin and Simon Romero, "As Polar Ice Turns To Water" New York Times (10 October 2005).

29 Jon Bowermaster, 'The Last Front of the Cold War," (November 93) Atlantic Monthly 36. Gary Weir, "Virtual War in the Ice Jungle: 'We don't know how to do this'" 28 The Journal of Strategic Studies 411. As discussed by Weir, the nature of under-ice naval warfare was unique in that it was defined in terms of surveillance, detection, submerged capability and destructive potential. As he observed, “Control over the opponent became the operational objective and precise knowledge of him the means to that end.

30 Tom Stefanick, Strategic Antisubmarine Warfare and Naval Strategy (Lexington Books, 1987) at 8-32; Le Marchand, supra note 12 at 22-25. The acoustic character of Arctic waters is the primary factor considered by any State in its decision to operate in this challenging marine environment. In relation to acoustics, water characteristics (salinity and temperature change), ice stress and fracture noise in the marginal ice zone – which is within 50 km of the edge of the icepack in both directions - between ice-covered and open-water areas, adverse prevailing weather, and limited biological noise beneath ice-cover. These all contribute to transmission, ambient noise, and noise attenuation characteristics which are quite variable within Arctic waters and are very different from those in open water.

31 George Lindsey, "Strategic Stability in the Arctic" 241 Adelphi Papers 7. The Soviet Navy was the first to embrace the concept of Arctic bastion defence. Mike Perry, "Rights of Passage: Canadian Sovereignty and International Law in the Arctic" 74 U. Det. Mercy L. Rev. 657 at 658, citing Canadian Forces Northern Area Command Briefing, Department of National Defence, 1996: This strategic interest in operating in the Arctic waters has survived successor Russian governments. On the 25th of August 1995, the Russians launched two ICBMs from a Typhoon-class submarine from the waters between the North Pole and CFS Alert. Rear Admiral R.A. Golosov (ret.) provided the perspective of one Russian senior naval officer in "Opening Up the Arctic Region and Russia's Submarine Fleet" (April 2006) Military Thought at 179: “Generally speaking, some quarters are out to take advantage of Russia's temporary economic and military weakness in a clear effort to curtail Russia's presence in the Arctic region. Our "friends" are pursuing two strategic goals: first, undermine Russia's economy still further and second, open up the Arctic Ocean as a potential springboard for strikes at Russian territory involving nuclear-powered submarines carrying cruise and ballistic missiles in the event of a military conflict. It should also be borne in mind that under the terms of the START-2 Treaty ratified by Russia, this country has the right to deploy 50% of its strategic nuclear potential aboard nuclear-powered submarine missile-carriers. Most of them are incorporated into the Northern Fleet, and the zone of their operations is the Arctic region. Destroying them in the event of a war as a matter of priority is one of the main tasks of the U.S. Navy and NATO.” 

32 Lindsey, supra note 31 at 22: Modern submarine-launched ballistic missiles such as the Russian SS-N-20 and -23 have ranges of 8,300 km. The areas covered by these ranges, if launched from Russia's Arctic coastal areas include all of North America, Western Europe, and China.

33 Peter Hayden, The Strategic Importance of the Arctic: Understanding the Military Issues, DND Strategic Issues Paper No. 1/87 (March 1987) 14.

34 Waldo K. Lyon, "The Navigation of Arctic Polar Submarines" 37 Journal of Navigation 155 at 156. As noted by Rear- Admiral F.W. Crickard in "An Anti-Submarine Warfare Capability in the Arctic a National Requirement" (April 1987) Canadian Defence Quarterly 24 at 27. Further, in March 1977 the Manchester Guardian reported that Soviet submarines had successfully navigated the Robeson Channel between Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

35 Haydon, Strategic Importance, Strategic Issues Paper, 12. The U.S. Navy Tomahawk and the Russian SS-NX-21 (3,000- km range) are two examples of submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCM). Bernard Cole, The Great Wall at Sea: China's Navy Enters the Twenty-First Century (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2001) at 106. The Chinese Peoples Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) have been reported as developing long-range – more than 200-km - cruise missiles that will be capable of being launched from submerged submarines.

36 See Haydon, supra note 35 at 16-17, for a discussion about the limited number of "choke-points" where submarine patrols could realistically be established. These would include the southern or northern ends of the channels in the Archipelago leading to the Arctic Basin. Alternatively, all routes could be controlled by positioning submarines in both the Lancaster and Smith Sounds or, as another option, in the Davis Strait.

37 Alfred S. McLaren, Unknown Waters: A First-Hand Account of the Historic Under-Ice Survey of the Siberian Continental Shelf By USS Queenfish (SSN-651) (University of Alabama Press, 2008). Capt(N) McLaren's account of the 1970 Arctic Ocean voyage of the Sturgeon-class nuclear attack submarine presents a detailed account of the myriad of difficulties to be faced when conducting under-ice operations.

38 Weir, supra note 29 at 425 notes that the ice recession will dramatically change the acoustic-detection equation and make the ASW surveillance problem more difficult. As Weir observes, “As the surveillance problem becomes more complex, the population of possibly hostile forces will likely increase given the attractiveness of the region as a route and center of virtually untapped natural resources.” 

39 Cole, supra note 35 at 34: “PLAN units conducted its first Arctic expedition in the summer of 1999, engaging in oceanographic studies and sea-bottom research – both of which have operational implications for the PLAN ASW capability.” 

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