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Canada to build first Arctic deep-water port, military base

by Staff Writers
Iqaluit, Canada (AFP) Aug 10, 2007
Canada will build its first Arctic deep-sea port to bolster its disputed claims to the famed Northwest Passage and Arctic seabed, believed to hold oil and gas riches, its prime minister said Friday.

An old dock and gravel runway at the abandoned lead and zinc mining town of Nanisivik, Baffin Island, would be refurbished to re-supply new Arctic patrol vessels, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a statement.

As well, a new Canadian Forces winter fighting school would be built in Resolute Bay in the Northwest Passage, he said.

"The first principle of Arctic sovereignty is use it or lose it," said Harper, indicating the new facilities "tell the world that Canada has a real, growing, long-term presence in the Arctic."

His announcement comes at the end of a three-day trek across the North and prefaces a massive Canadian military exercise this weekend aimed at countering foreign Arctic grabs.

Canada is at odds with Russia, Denmark, Norway and the United States over 1.2 million square kilometers (460,000 square miles) of Arctic seabed, thought to hold 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas.

Of late, the international rivalry has heated up as melting polar ice make the region more accessible, and could open the Northwest Passage to year-round shipping by 2050.

Canadian forces have operated in the Arctic since 1898, when a volunteer Yukon Field Force helped maintain law and order during the Gold Rush, but a modern military presence was only established in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, in 1970.

Less than 200 soldiers and 1,500 part-time Inuit rangers are now permanently based north of the 60th parallel, maintaining Canadian sovereignty and security over four million square kilometers (1.5 million square miles).

However, the Canadian Navy "does not have the capability to effectively patrol" Arctic waters, it said in a briefing note.

"The navy can only operate in northern waters for a short period of time, and only when there is no ice."

Harper announced plans last month to build six to eight ice-breaking patrol ships to prevent trespass on Canada's northern lands and to reaffirm its claim to the Arctic, at a cost of 7.1 billion dollars.

But critics lamented the medium-sized ice-breakers were not sufficient, and called for the three heavy ice-breakers he promised during the last election, in 2006.

"To exercise our sovereignty, Canada needs vessels that can go anywhere, any time in those areas we claim as our own," said New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton.

"Rather than buying military 'slush-breakers,' we should be building new polar ice-breakers ... to break ice for commercial vessels, help re-supply northern communities, maintain navigation devices, provide search and rescue, and support research scientists."

Locals, meanwhile, demand more Arctic ports to spur economic activity and reduce remote communities' reliance on costly air freight to import food and supplies.

"In the Arctic, there are huge opportunities for diversified economic development, be we lack such obvious tools as shipping facilities," said Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, in a letter to Nunatsiaq News.

The United States has three aging ice-breakers.

Russia has just started building a new fleet of nuclear-powered ice-breakers, and last week reached the bottom of the Arctic Ocean under the North Pole at a depth of 4,261 meters (13,980 feet) in a mini-submarine to plant a Russian flag -- which Canada dismissed as a 15th-century stunt.

Canada has one large ice-breaker and five light-to-medium ice-breakers -- all aging and "too few for the size of our Arctic," according to Robert Huebert, an Arctic geopolitical expert at Calgary University.

"It's about time that we're starting to take Arctic sovereignty seriously" after long ignoring its northern frontier, Huebert told AFP.

He noted that US oil firms Exxon and Imperial last month announced hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on Beaufort Sea projects, while South Korea is expanding its ice-breaker building capacity. "They're not doing this on a whim," he said.

"There's going to be a lot more people doing a lot more things in the Arctic, and we need to be ready to claim what we want to control and show that we can control what we claim," he said.

"The world is coming to the Arctic," he said. "If push comes to shove, it all comes down to control."

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Arctic sea ice 'lowest in recorded history': scientist
Washington (AFP) Aug 10, 2007
Sea ice in the northern hemisphere has plunged to the lowest levels ever measured, a US Arctic specialist said Friday, adding that it was likely part of the long-term trend of polar ice melt driven by global warming.

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