The Canadian government on Monday announced that it had failed, in a small Arctic expedition it mounted last week, to find the remains of two British ships that disappeared more than 150 years ago seeking the fabled Northwest Passage.
The trip had more than historical relevance: It marked the latest move in a bigger geopolitical game—Canada's ambition to burnish its position as an Arctic power.
As the globe logs an unusually hot summer, Canada is boosting its presence in the warming and increasingly accessible Arctic. Driven by the promise of rich resources and a desire to control its northern waterways, its government has in recent months made the Arctic the centerpiece of official visits, military exercises and above- and below-water missions. It has intercepted several Russian planes it says are probing its borders.
"We live in a time of renewed foreign interest in Canada's Arctic," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday, as he toured the Far North and announced an airport upgrade and research station. "With foreign aircraft probing the skies, vessels plying northern waters and the eyes of the world gazing our way, we must remain vigilant."
The Arctic attention comes as polar states—which also include Russia and the U.S.—position themselves to benefit from an anticipated surge in Arctic resource exploration and shipping. Canada and other nations are mapping the Arctic Ocean floor, hoping to show their continental shelves, and thus their resource rights, extend far north of their coastlines.
The U.S., Canada and Denmark are working to resolve lingering territorial disputes to clear the way for oil or fisheries development. Earlier this month, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon unveiled the country's first Arctic foreign policy statement, which pledges to settle boundary disputes and stake offshore claims.
The economic stakes are high. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that some 22% of the world's undiscovered oil and gas lay above the Arctic Circle. Canada is conducting its own five-year, C$100 million study, due in 2013.
Bids for oil and gas exploration leases in the Beaufort Sea area of the western Arctic hit a record in June of 2008, including one for C$1.2 billion, according to a 2009 study by the Arctic Council, a grouping of eight nations.
"We're seeing a very, very significant change in attention'' to the Arctic, says Ken Coates, a specialist in northern Canadian history and dean of arts at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. "Now Canada and others are saying whoever controls the Arctic can be the next Saudi Arabia."
Canada and other countries are also busy mapping the Arctic sea bed to show how far their continental landmasses extend underwater past their coastlines. The data will be submitted to a United Nations scientific commission to determine if countries can claim rights to resources under those continental shelves.
"It's possible our rights will run up against Russian or Danish rights somewhere in the central Arctic Ocean," said Michael Byers, a specialist in arctic law professor at the University of British Columbia.
One of the biggest unsettled issues is control over the Northwest Passage, the network of routes that winds through the 36,000 islands of the Canadian Arctic archipelago. Explorers and even private boaters have navigated the passage over the last 100 years. According to the Arctic Council study, the passage would likely be too clogged with ice for regular transoceanic shipping for a decade.
The U.S. and other countries hold the passage is an international strait, meaning that even though Canada owns it, everyone should be free to go through. Canada calls it internal waters and argues that transiting ships and submarines must ask its permission to pass and obey its laws.
The push to control the Northwest Passage was at the heart of last week's search for the resting place of two British ships that set sail under Sir John Franklin from England in 1845 and disappeared exploring the passage. Canada has argued that finding the remains of ships such as the Terror and Erebus will show that Canada—or at least its former master, Britain—explored the passage before any other nationfirst.
That search came up empty. On Monday, expedition leaders said they had searched 150 square kilometers (58 square miles) of previously uncharted sea just north of the Canadian mainland but failed to find the ships.
Arctic experts say some of Canada's efforts are political theater. Only a few territorial boundaries are still in dispute. Russian bomber sorties are common, with the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, logging around 50 intercepts in the past three years.
Boris Burmistrov, a specialist in bilateral relations at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, says the purpose of the Russian flights is training, and that Moscow and Ottawa are "on the same page" on Arctic sovereignty issues.
Canada and the U.S. are negotiating who can claim rights to a 6,250-square-mile area in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and Canada's Yukon. Canada holds the boundary line follows the Alaska-Canada border due north "as far as the frozen sea," as outlined by an 1825 treaty originally between Russia and Britain. The U.S. says the boundary should follow a more northeasterly line equidistant from both countries' coasts.
Then there is Hans Island, a barren speck midway between Greenland and Canada's Ellesmere Island described in Canada's Arctic-policy statement as "a 1.3-square-kilometer Canadian island which Denmark claims.''
For years, Canada and Denmark disputed ownership in a lighthearted way, with the Danes depositing Danish flags and bottles of schnapps, and Canadian politicians responding with the maple-leaf standard and bottles of Canadian Club whiskey.
Negotiations are "very friendly," says Erik Vilstrup Lorenzen, the Danish ambassador to Canada, noting the two countries participate in joint military and scouting exercises up north and share research and mapping data.