In mid-September, scientists with the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, CO, announced the findings of a NASA-led study that shocked even the most ardent environmental observers: Arctic sea ice had reached a record low of just 4.2 million square kilometres, a sharp decline from the average 7.5 to 8.5 that normally blankets the region.

The fabled shipping route of the Northwest Passage, normally at least 14% covered by ice in late summer, was down to just 2%. And the melt depth of the permafrost, usually no more than 50 centimetres, was at least a metre.

The rapid change has prompted warnings of an approaching tipping point – the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany claims we have “already tipped” – and ramped up worst case scenarios of complete Arctic ice melt by 2030.

The implications of this sudden change for Canada are considerable. What was once largely an academic debate about control over the continental shelf is now a national predicament over trans-polar shipping, exploration and economic development, sea and overland transportation routes, tourism, international smuggling, sovereignty, culture, national identity and military deployment.

“Canada has the longest coastline anywhere in the world and most of it is in the Arctic,“ notes Michael Byers, Canadian Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law. “We are on the frontline of climate change.”

Speaking at the inaugural roundtable of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies this fall, the academic director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia observed that a northern sea route would reduce the distance between Europe and South East Asia by 5000 km. While that would create obvious advantages, it would also carry significant risk: oil spills and other environmental disasters; the introduction of foreign species; smuggling of guns, people, diamonds, and weapons of mass destruction. “If you are al Qaeda or North Korea, you’re not going to use the Panama Canal,” he observed.

Although the Canadian Forces have expressed reluctance to be the lead in a reclamation project, the Harper government has committed significant resources to increase the military’s presence: $3 billion for at least six new Arctic patrol ships, surveillance through unmanned aerial vehicles, expanded size and capabilities of the Arctic Rangers, $100 million for a deepwater seaport on Baffin Island and a new Arctic Warfare Training Centre at Resolute Bay.

Byers is not convinced that a massive military investment is the most prudent step. For mapping, surveillance and search and rescue, he suggested that a well-equipped Coast Guard, helicopters and well-trained enforcement officers could handle most situations; military vessels would only be needed to deal with non-state actors – “we’re not going to war,” he said.

However, we do need to assert control – over the surface and the seabed – if we are to have choices, he contends. Canada has “not been putting enough money into mapping that part of the extended shelf that we might call our own.” With the Danes, the Norwegians and the Russians making large scientific investments, “it’s time for the federal government to provide funding to do the science.”

Byers believes that, with so much area to go around, boundary and transit disputes can be resolved. The Russians, he notes, “have their own passage, and the others are allies; the only fly in the ointment is China – it’s not clear [what their] interest is on this file.” And to resolve major issues with the US, he suggested an international joint commission along the lines of the IJC that oversees the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River System.

With US interest rising – look no further than a recent cover of Time magazine – cooperation and diplomatic engagement could have an immediate impact. There is always a danger that the government sees Arctic sovereignty as merely an electoral issue, but Byers points to the prime minister’s apparent interest as a sign that this is now an issue of importance. “There is no time to waste,” he says.