26 Aug 2011

Canada is the second largest country in the world, but also one of the least populated with a population density of 3.4 persons per sq. km. Much of what makes Canada so big and so sparsely populated is it's great white northern arctic region. While this region has always been a part of the Canadian psyche it has until recently remained largely undeveloped due to all that dang snow and ice. But global warming has changed all that and plans are afoot to spur economic development in the region.

The region is rich in minerals and undersea oil deposits, the latter of which have sparked a few diplomatic disagreements between Canada, the US, Russia, and even the Danish! In order to stake its claim on the arctic Canada is eager to invest in regional infrastructure. It's spending $140 million to build a 140-kilometre all-season road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk in order to open up access to the Arctic. Investments are also being made in infrastructure further south in Churchill, Manitoba through the so-called Arctic Bridge project to increase port traffic between the Port of Churchill and Russia as well as Northern Europe. A deep-sea port is also being refurbished in the Arctic town of Nanisivik.

But perhaps the greatest arctic trade issue is that of the fabled Northwest Passage. Researchers from the U.S. have estimated that the arctic waterways will be ice free by 2030 due to global warming and this presents both opportunities and challenges for the region as it attempts to improve the regional economy. While increased port traffic and easier importing and exporting of supplies and goods will help the economy there are disputes over whether the passage is Canadian territory or should be considered an international gateway.

With the dangers posed by potentially hundreds of ships traveling through the passage, particularly oil tankers, there are concerns the fragile arctic environment will be under increasing threat and that the remoteness of the region will hinder the ability to respond to potential oil spills. Balancing economic development with environmental concerns, as always, remains a tricky matter.