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LAY OF THE LAND

Safety in Numbers | 10 reasons not to drill | Crisis Vultures | Future Farms | Rail resurgent | Coho salmon | Bold Strokes | Cheese Sticks | Panama Canal North? | Value of Nature | Updates

Panama Canal North?

Restrictions on arctic shipping may be melting away

A perennial ice pack has kept the Arctic impassable to commercial shipping, but global warming is creating more open water every year. Researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway have calculated that 14 percent of the arctic ice melted away between 1978 and 1998. By the end of this century, they predict, it will disappear each summer.

An open Northwest Passage would trim 5,000 miles off the voyage from Japan to northern Europe--and offer a short, direct route between Alaskan oil operations and East Coast refineries. But a major tanker spill among the fragile islands and channels of Canada's Northwest Passage would make the Exxon Valdez incident look like a disaster drill. The area's volatile weather and sheer remoteness would make cleanup of any spills practically impossible, while alien species introduced by dumped ballast water could disrupt the arctic food chain, as the zebra mussel has done in the Great Lakes.

Canada's Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act mandates double hulls on ships and outlaws waste dumping. The United States, however, has challenged its northern neighbor's sovereignty, saying that Canada does not have the unilateral right to ban vessels simply because they might pose a hazard. "The Northwest Passage is a strait for international navigation," says a State Department lawyer. "The Law of the Sea provides a right for all ships to transit that strait." In response, Canada is championing international guidelines that are expected to be approved by the United Nations this year. The United States has not opposed the new standards, which lack the legal teeth to protect this icy ecosystem. --Robert Aquinas McNally

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