The Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage is a sea route through the Arctic Ocean and along the northern coast of North America that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  For centuries explorers sought to find a possible trade route through the Northwest Passage, but the Arctic sea ice prevented regular marine shipping for most of the year.  In fact, many explorers lost their lives in an attempt to find a passage through the ice.

The Northwest Passage has been the subject of controversy in international law because of a dispute over who has sovereignty over the waterway.  Canada claims that the Northwest Passage is part of its internal waters.  Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country is free to set laws and regulate the use of its internal waters.  Foreign vessels have no right to pass within the internal waters of another country.  The United States and Europe, on the other hand, claim that the waters of the Northwest Passage are international waters, meaning that anyone is free to navigate or pass through those waters.

As a result of climate change, the levels of sea ice have been drastically reduced, and in 2007 it was reported that the Northwest Passage was free of sea ice for the first time in recorded history. Although the levels of sea ice fluctuate every year, it is speculated that by the end of the twenty-first century there might be no sea ice at all in the summer, making the Northwest Passage attractive as a major shipping route.  As a result, the question of who “owns” the Northwest Passage takes on increasing significance.  If the Passage is considered to be international waters, then any country in the world could use it as a shipping route.  The benefits to having a clear path through the Passage include reducing shipping routes between Europe and East Asia by approximately 4000km, thereby saving time, fuel and transit costs; oil produced in Alaska could be transported more quickly; and vast mineral deposits in the Canadian North would become much easier and more economical to develop.

However, there is also the possibility for significant environmental impacts.  Besides the fact that the melting polar ice is seriously threatening Arctic animal habitats, such as that of the polar bear, the opening up of the Northwest Passage as an international shipping route would increase the risk of oil spills from ships and Arctic drilling.  The environmental impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 off the coast of Alaska are still being felt today, more than 20 years later and environmentalists are concerned that the Arctic environment could be put at even further risk should the Northwest Passage become a major shipping route.

Discussion Questions:

1.       Why is Principle 21 important for countries with transboundary resources, such as rivers or lakes that are shared between two countries?

2.       Why is it important to establish who has sovereignty over the Northwest Passage?