CANADA DEFENDS THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE
On the first full day of the sovereignty operation, the captain slowed the frigate and we took out the machine guns and sprayed the Northwest Passage with bullets. It felt pretty good. It was foggy out, and the unpolluted water boiled as we polluted it with lead. There was no life we could see and few waves. The wind was cold, the Arctic Ocean a drab green. There wasn’t any ice. But if there had been ice, we would have shot it, too.
The guns were C7s—American M16s but rechristened, like many Canadian weapons, with a patriotic C—and most of the shooters were camo-clad teenagers from Quebec’s celebrated 22e Regiment, who are known as the Vandoos, from vingt-deux (twenty-two). The Vandoos lined up three in a row on the back deck, each of them held in place by a sturdy navy man, and fired away. They went from semiautomatic to fully automatic and shot more. They switched to pistols and then shotguns and shot until the deck was littered with shells. When they finished, they kicked the shells into the sea. There were journalists on board, and the Arctic was melting, and the Canadians—who now had a new, northern coastline to develop and defend—were trying their hardest to be fierce. The world had to understand that they were ready to fight for whatever riches the retreating ice revealed.
The frigate was named the Montreal. It was the length of two city blocks and painted warship gray, packed with two dozen torpedoes and nearly 250 people. There were sailors, Vandoos, and Mounties. There were Canadian wire-service reporters and photographers from at least two in‑flight magazines. There were Inuit dignitaries and observers from Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, the pseudo-governmental Inuit corporation that had negotiated the 1999 creation of its people’s own 800,000-square-mile territory, Nunavut. Our cruise speed was 15. 5 knots. Our fuel stores were at 125 percent. With diesel taking the place of water in the auxiliary tanks, our showers were capped at two minutes. We were steaming north, farther north than the Royal Canadian Navy had gone in decades.
The Arctic held two main prizes: petroleum and new shipping lanes. An estimated 22 percent of the world’s untapped deposits—ninety billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the U. S. Geological Survey—is thought to be hiding in the high north, some of it in territory that does not yet belong to any nation. The less ice there is, the more petroleum there is within reach, and the more pressure there is to stake a claim. Likewise, the less ice there is, the more the storied Northwest Passage—a long-sought, long-frozen-over shortcut between the Atlantic and the Pacific—becomes a viable alternative to the Panama Canal, saving potentially shippers leaving Newark or Baltimore for Shanghai or Busan some four thousand miles and hundreds of thousands of dollars in transit fees and fuel costs.
Canada owns the land on both sides of the Northwest Passage, but much of the world, particularly its customary ally the United States, does not agree that it owns the waterway itself. Canadians were tired of being pushed around by their more populous neighbor—of being “condemned to always play ‘Robin’ to the U. S. ‘Batman,’ ” as American diplomats would put it in a 2008 cable released by WikiLeaks. At stake up here was national pride, not just money or national security. To kick off this show of force, called Operation Lancaster, conservative prime minister Stephen Harper himself had made the long journey to Iqaluit, the former U. S. military base that is now the capital of Nunavut. He had arrived bearing promises of new heavy icebreakers, a new Arctic warfare and training center, a new deepwater port, and a new network of undersea sensors and aerial drones. Now, as his Vandoos and Mounties moved north, he was putting boots on the ice.
There had been sovereignty operations before, including Nunalivut (Inuktitut for “the land is ours”) in 2006 and the previous year’s Exercise Frozen Beaver, when Canadian troops helicoptered to Hans Island—a bean-shaped, half-square-mile rock near Greenland claimed by both Denmark and Canada—and planted a supposedly windproof steel flag and flagpole that the wind toppled almost immediately. But Lancaster was the largest such operation to date, the first to take advantage of retreating sea ice, and it was occurring on the hundredth anniversary of the Northwest Passage’s first crossing (which was by a Norwegian, though no one dwelled on that). Its stated goal was to “project a credible size military force over a broad area of the Eastern Arctic.” It would last twelve days in all. The Montreal would lead a flotilla of two navy warships and two coast guard icebreakers into Lancaster Sound, the eastern entrance of the passage, and patrol back and forth as the skies buzzed with Aurora surveillance planes and Griffon helicopters. Meanwhile, the Vandoos—accompanied by Inuit reservists, there to ensure that no one was eaten by polar bears—would take the smaller ships to shore and set up observation posts on both sides of the sound. To the north, on rocky Devon Island, would be Observation Post 1. To the south, on glaciated Bylot Island and the adjacent Borden Peninsula, would be Observation Posts 2 and 3. The troops would hold the high ground for most of a week, scanning the Northwest Passage for invaders.
This would all be preceded by a display of Canadian resolve: a mock interdiction. After watching the machine guns fire and the Maple Leaf flag flutter, I strolled up to the bridge and stood next to the Montreal’s commanding officer. He and his crew had donned green helmets and green flak jackets. The radio crackled, and a Canadian approximation of the voice of a California surfer filled the bridge. It was the supposed captain of the Killer Bee, which in actuality was the Goose Bay, a 150-foot Canadian coastal-defense vessel that the war gamers had decided would be a rogue “American” merchant ship starting an unauthorized transit of the Northwest Passage.
The Killer Bee was four miles away in the fog, sailing a course that would intersect with ours in an estimated fourteen minutes and forty-two seconds. It would not say where it was going. It would not say what was in its hold. “Merchant vessel Killer Bee, what is your cargo?” our radioman asked. “This is Warship 336. Again, what is your cargo?” The Killer Bee’s answers were brief, rude, believably American in their tone save for the occasional slipup: “We’re aboot forty miles off the coast, which constitutes international waters. Are you sure you have the authority to be questioning me out here? Can you just tell me again why I’m being asked these questions? You guys are the almighty Canadian government, so I’m sure you can access this sort of information somewhere else.”
The Montreal passed a message to the colonel running Operation Lancaster, asking for clearance to send over a boarding party and, if necessary, to initiate “disabling fire.” The sailors on the bridge peered into the mist off our port side. We informed the Killer Bee that we would be boarding it, and its captain replied that he wouldn’t be “too down with that.” The engine churned. We began to close the gap: seven hundred yards, six hundred yards, five hundred yards. The ship appeared, and we aimed our . 50‑caliber machine gun at it. “Bullying your way around the ocean is not a way to foster cooperation between our two countries,” the voice told us. We commanded the Killer Bee to remove all personnel from its top decks, and our gunners directed a barrage of tracer fire a thousand yards off its bow. The smell of gunpowder wafted through the bridge. The next barrage was five hundred yards off the bow. Finally, our 57‑millimeter cannon swiveled toward the Killer Bee. There were five loud booms in quick succession, five puffs of smoke, and then, seconds later, a sixth round. The ocean in front of the Killer Bee erupted. Its captain relented. “I thought Canada was a nation of peacekeepers,” whined the faux American.
For the next five hundred miles, we saw only water and fog and an occasional glimpse of the chutes and pinnacles of Baffin Island’s peaks. It wasn’t until 10:00 a. m. on the operation’s fourth day that a much-awaited announcement came over the loudspeaker: icebergs ahead. We rushed to the port-side deck where the officers normally gathered to smoke. We were at seventy- two degrees north, and there were three of them: two- and three-hundred-foot giants that towered over the frigate. The icebergs’ walls were riven by small waterfalls, and chunks of ice were falling off into the sea. The bergs were drifting south toward the Atlantic, bound for warmer waters, where they would soon melt into nothing. The Vandoos leaned over the railing and snapped photographs.
It was the summer of 2006, and drought-crazed camels would soon rampage through a village in Australia, a manatee would swim past Chelsea Piers in New York City’s Hudson River, and the Netherlands would announce that its famous Elfstedentocht ice-skating race might have to be postponed forever. Armadillos were reaching northeast Arkansas. Wolves ate dogs in Alaska. Fire consumed fifty million acres of Siberia. Greenland lost a hundred gigatons of ice. The Inuit got air- conditioning units. The polar bear lurched toward the endangered-species list. India’s Ghoramara Island was mostly lost to the Bay of Bengal, Papua New Guinea’s Malasiga village was mostly lost to the Solomon Sea, and Alaska’s Shishmaref village decided to evacuate before being lost to the Chukchi Sea. Canadian scientists reported that the forty-square-mile Ayles Ice Shelf had broken off Ellesmere Island and formed a rapidly melting island of its own. A European satellite showed a temporary crack in the ice pack leading from northern Russia all the way to the North Pole. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would declare that winter the warmest since it began keeping records, which was in 1880. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would announce that eleven of the previous twelve years were the warmest in human history.
In retrospect, this was the moment that we began to believe in global warming—not in the abstract science of it, which most could already passively accept, but in the fact that there were money and power to be won and lost. Skeptics would continue loudly doubting the overwhelming scientific consensus, but they were a smoke screen. For those who considered climate change’s strategic rather than ideological impacts—militaries, corporations, the rare politician—it had become time to grapple with the consequences. There would be winners. There would be losers. The process of determining who was who was getting under way.
Great Britain had recently asked its chief economist, Sir Nicholas Stern, to conduct a review of global warming’s likely effects on world markets. His findings were dire: The cost of unchecked greenhouse-gas emissions would be the equivalent of losing 5 percent or more of global GDP a year, every year, forever. In tropical Africa and South America, crop yields would drop dramatically. In South and East Asia, hundreds of millions of people and trillions of dollars of assets would be threatened by rising seas. “What makes wars start?” Britain’s foreign minister, Margaret Beckett, asked the UN Security Council in 2007. “Fights over water. Changing patterns of rainfall. Fights over food production, land use.” According to Lord Stern, the world was on the brink of an upheaval on the scale of the two world wars and the Great Depression.
But the future did not seem universally dark. At the margins of the crisis, some were already seeing opportunity, especially in the wealthy nations that were causing climate change in the first place. At least in the near term in most of Europe, Russia, Canada, and America, rain will still fall, growing seasons will extend, and some agriculture could expand, bolstered by our emissions. Carbon dioxide is a key building block for plant growth. All else being equal—though in few cases will all else be equal—the higher the atmospheric concentration, the higher the yields.
Farther north, in the Arctic, the ice albedo feedback effect—the fact that sea ice, which reflects 85 to 90 percent of solar radiation, melts to become seawater, which absorbs all but 10 percent of radiation—would help keep temperatures climbing at twice the global rate. Northern economies seemed poised to grow at least as rapidly. Canada’s farmers already had two extra growing days a year, and studies said its Athabasca tar sands might someday be accessible from the north, via the Mackenzie River. Under Stephen Harper, a country many Americans considered well-meaning to the point of naïveté was becoming one of the villains of international climate conferences. Canada was a party to the Kyoto Protocol, a weak 1997 treaty that mostly excluded big emitters like China and the United States but nonetheless remains the world’s first and only binding international agreement on greenhouse gases. Yet Canada would be overshooting its Kyoto targets by 30 percent by the time it abandoned the treaty in 2012—just before another northern economy, Russia, also made its exit. One could blame Canada’s climate about-face on its reliance on carbon- intensive tar sands. But it is also unclear that climate change is all that bad for Canada.
The $49 million grossed by Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth might have been global warming’s first true financial success story, but as the Montreal entered the Northwest Passage, the new mentality was taking hold. Reports by Citigroup, UBS, and Lehman Brothers advised investors on how to wring a buck out of global tailspin. Citigroup’s report Climatic Consequences: Investment Implications of a Changing Climate, released in January 2007, was particularly helpful. It highlighted investment opportunities at seventy-four companies in twenty-one industries in eighteen countries, including Aguas de Barcelona (drought-afflicted Spain’s “leader in water supply”), Monsanto (drought-resistant crops), and John Deere (more tractors needed in America as drought wiped out Australia’s wheat exports). It showed a graph of the six top natural-gas-producing countries in the world. Four of them—Russia, the United States, Canada, and Norway—were Arctic nations.
My bunk mate on the Montreal was a man I’ll call Sergeant Strong, a tall Canadian in his forties who had a thick brown mustache and a runner’s build and wore a dark beret with a gold crest. He had killed people in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and places he would not specify, and every time I pulled out my camera, he stepped out of view. He did not want me to use his real name. He was a patriot and a lifelong soldier, and recently he’d become a reporter for Canada’s Army News. He roamed the ship with a pair of Nikons slung from his shoulders. We first met on the back deck, near the helicopter hangar, and he immediately asked who I thought owned the Northwest Passage. I said I wasn’t sure. “It’s ours,” he told me. “It’s fucking ours.” Then he shared his solution for the territorial dispute over Hans Island. “We should just nuke Denmark,” he said. He was kidding, of course. Canada has no nuclear weapons. His real solution was more typically Canadian, and it revealed him as a believer in the basic boots‑on‑the-ice premise of Operation Lancaster: If Canada backed up its Arctic claims with a physical presence, the world would recognize them. “Just put a trailer on the island,” he said. “Two guys, two months at a time. Give them TVs and VCRs. And guess what: Problem solved.”
The sergeant had a partner, Master Corporal Bradley, a giant videographer with whatever the opposite of a Napoleon complex is. Bradley’s mustache was gray and waxed into dueling barbs, and he wore noise-canceling headphones even when he wasn’t filming. He walked like a hunchback through the bowels of the Montreal, constantly hitting his head on doorways. The three of us, it turned out, would be part of the landing team forming Observation Post 1 on Devon Island. We would be joining eight Vandoos and four Canadian Rangers—Inuit reservists outfitted with red cotton hoodies—to go ashore at Dundas Harbor, a shallow fjord where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had manned an outpost in the 1920s. Back then, two constables had been lost to self-inflicted gunshots to the head: the first, a suicide; the second, an apparent walrus-hunting mishap.
Two days before our “insertion,” which is what everyone insisted on calling our mission to Devon, we were allowed to take a tour of the Montreal’s operations room—a cave of damp air lit only by radar and sonar screens and low red lights. Inside we met the ship’s underwater-warfare officer. “Could you detect a passing submarine?” I asked. He could not. The ship couldn’t drop sonar rays in the water without NATO permission. “They’d wonder why we were asking,” he said. “And if we did detect something, we’d say, ‘Hey, we found your sub,’ and the Americans would say, ‘No you didn’t,’ and we’d say, ‘Yes we did.’ It’s a touchy subject.” I asked about the relative size of the two navies. “The Americans, jeez, I can’t count how many ships they have. They have sixty thousand people working in Norfolk alone. On one base. That’s as many as we have in our entire armed forces. They have massive fleets. Massive. And we’re obviously, you know, small.” Our tour guide interjected, “But we can punch above our weight class.” The officer agreed. “Yeah, we punch above our weight class.”
One deck below the ops room was the lower-ranks mess, and I went there one afternoon to hear Commissioner Ann Meekitjuk Hanson, the formal head of Nunavut, address the troops. She told them about her childhood speaking only Inuktitut, her forced relocation to Toronto for schooling, and her Canadianized life in journalism and politics. “I have to disabuse southerners of their igloo notions,” she said, “and explain that there’s more to us than drumming and throat singing.” A sailor named Roberts, one of perhaps five black people on the entire ship, asked how climate change was affecting the Inuit way of life. The commissioner said that autumn was getting noticeably later, and that they were having difficulties forecasting weather and ice conditions; now there were only six seasons rather than the traditional eight. She showed us slides of her homeland and put a cassette into a boom box to play some throat-singing music for us.
After the music stopped, I walked down the hall and found Sergeant Strong once again promoting his plan for the Hans Island dispute with Denmark. “It could be something as simple as putting a couple of guys up there with a trailer,” he told a reporter from one of the in‑flight magazines. “How much would that cost? The problem would just go away.”
Excerpted from Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming.