09/18/2014 09:24 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:57 EDT

When it Comes to the Arctic, Canada Is Unprepared

Ron Bambridge via Getty Images

Years of underfunding have left Canada's Coast Guard woefully unprepared to fulfill its increasing responsibilities in the Arctic. Thinning sea ice is creating new economic opportunities in the North, including resource development and rising shipping traffic. The Coast Guard's icebreaking fleet must be enlarged to ensure that Canada has the capacity to meet its maritime responsibilities.

The Arctic ice cap is shrinking, opening previously inaccessible waterways. According to the NASA-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center, the extent of this past summer's Arctic ice was the sixth lowest ever recorded. The latest United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released on Monday confirmed that Arctic sea-ice is already at high risk from climate change. A more accessible Arctic will put demand on the Coast Guard to ensure protection of the environment, monitoring of increased shipping, icebreaking services for commercial vessels, search and rescue operations and resupply for remote northern communities.

Canada's Arctic coastline runs more than 162,000 kilometers in length, well over half of Canada's total coastline. To patrol this vast and operationally complex coastline, Canada has an icebreaking fleet consisting of two medium-sized icebreakers (capable of breaking through nearly two-meters of ice) and four smaller icebreakers (capable of breaking through ice of up to one-meter). This means one icebreaker for every 27,000 kilometers of coastline.

All but two of these ships are over 30 years old and Canada's largest icebreaker, the Louis St-Laurent, is nearly 44 years old. While there are plans to replace the St-Laurent and refit four medium icebreakers, Canada's fleet is disproportionately small and outdated when compared to its Arctic neighbours.

As part of Russia's northern strategy, the Russian Federation is building new nuclear and conventional icebreakers to add to what is already the world's largest icebreaking fleet at 36 ships. This includes six nuclear-powered heavy icebreakers, with four more planned for delivery by 2017. The significantly larger Russian fleet is responsible for an Arctic coastline of only 40,000 kilometers, giving Russia one icebreaker for every 1,100 kilometers of coastline.

Countries with even smaller Arctic coastlines have greater icebreaking capacity than Canada. Sweden and Finland have 15 ships in total. China, with no Arctic coastline whatsoever, has been quick to recognize the opportunities in the Arctic and plans to build an icebreaker to be delivered in 2014.

Recent incidents have shown that Canada's small and aging fleet is at the limits of its capabilities. Two years ago, the St-Laurent was disabled when a propeller broke, cutting short her Arctic mission and requiring assistance from the USCGC Healy. Canada's medium icebreaker, the 34-year old Amundsen, spent 2012 being repaired after cracks were discovered in four of her six engines. Both incidents underscore the need for new investment in Canada's icebreaking fleet, beyond replacing the St-Laurent and refitting four icebreakers.

While the Canadian government has made the North a priority and announced plans to build six to eight Arctic patrol ships at a cost of $3.1 billion, there are concerns about the proposed ships Arctic capabilities. In a report by Michael Byers, the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law, he finds serious problems with the patrol ships design. Most importantly, they will have a limited range and lack icebreaking capabilities when compared to Canada's existing icebreakers. While sea ice is thinning due to climate change, the frequency of icebergs is increasing and will pose an increasing danger to ships operating in Arctic waters, including the new patrol vessels.

According to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, there are already claims that the $35 billion National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, which includes the replacement for the St-Laurent and the arctic patrol ships, is in trouble as a result of contractual, financial, and design difficulties. Canada is far behind other nations in its capacity to patrol its Arctic coastline, delays to the shipbuilding strategy will exacerbate this.

The stakes are too high for Canada to get this wrong. If Canada is to take advantage of the opportunities created by the opening of the North, the government must rethink its Arctic maritime strategy and make adequate investments into the Coast Guards Arctic fleet.

Brian Kingston is a Global Shaper in the Ottawa Hub and a 2013/14 Action Canada Fellow