Global warming is thought to be occurring faster in the North than anywhere else. The gradual disappearance of sea ice is opening up commercial shipping as well as previously inaccessible areas rich with oil, natural gas and mineral resources.
"From a naval perspective, climate change probably means there will be more open water, so the Arctic Ocean will really emerge as the Arctic Ocean," Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison, Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, said in a recent interview.
"It also means ... that the circumpolar route will probably open to international shipping from Asia to Europe sometime in this century — probably a lot earlier than most people predicted a few years ago," he said.
"I know that major shipping companies are planning now to be able to have ships that are first-year ice capable sailing out of Singapore and over the pole into Rotterdam.
"That's a game changer in my view ... a shorter distance so less time, less money."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been vocal about asserting Canada's sovereignty in the region. As part of the government's national shipbuilding strategy, new icebreakers and Arctic off-shore patrol ships are on order. Maddison said the first patrol ship is expected in 2015.
He would like to see even more resources put into improving the navy's surveillance abilities in the North.
"I definitely see room for more investment in surveillance capacity, persistent surveillance capacity in the Arctic ... to provide a more real-time operating picture of what’s going on.”
Maddison said that would include space-based assets, unmanned aerial drones, submarines under the ice and a human presence on Canadian ships.
"We will want to know what's happening. The economic activity is attracting a greater human footprint, so that brings greater opportunity. But it also brings risk — risk of pollution incidents, risk of search-and-rescue incidents, risk from a public-health perspective."
The number of navy personnel shrunk to about 8,500 during the Canadian mission to Afghanistan, Maddison said, so recruitment has been a major focus.
There are now 9,500 regular force sailors and 3,500 in the reserves. Maddison said he would like even more.
"I could generate a demand to grow the navy by about a thousand more," he said.
"That demand would go onto the table with others at a time when there are pressures on the department's budget ... At the end of the day I will sit around the table with my colleagues, with the chief of defence staff, and we will have these discussions and we'll see where they lead."
Maddison said he looks at the 21st century as a maritime century and one in which the Canadian navy will have a bigger role in protecting Canada's commercial interests internationally, providing humanitarian assistance and being a strong buffer for the battle against drug and human trafficking, as well as piracy.
"The traditional role of navies has not changed for centuries. Navies are about influencing events such that free trade is enabled and that conflicts are avoided," he explained.
"However, when conflict is unavoidable, navies are there prepared to engage in combat and to prevail."