Prospects for navigable canals across the Canadian Arctic



Harry Valentine, Transportation Research Engineer, Cornwall, Canada


Climate and Arctic shipping

Two conflicting theories offer to explain recent changes in weather patterns. Both theories allow for the emergence of a navigable commercial shipping route across the Arctic. Ships have successfully sailed through the Canadian Arctic passage that has now become navigable for a few weeks during the summer. The carbon dioxide theory of global warming suggests that the shipping route would remain navigable for longer periods of the year in future. The solar-cycle theory of global warming suggests that the sun releases thermal energy cyclically, in alternating periods of slightly more heat and slightly less heat. Proponents of this theory suggest the peak of sun’s warmer period occurred some 2 to 10 years ago, with the North Atlantic drift having pushed heat from that period northward into storage under the Arctic ice, from where it melts Arctic ice.

While a trans-Arctic ocean route is presently navigable for a few weeks per year, Canada’s geography offers two possible trans-Arctic canal options that may extend the trans-Arctic shipping navigable season from a few weeks per year to several months per year. The canal option is compatible with both theories of climate change as it could extend the operating season of trans-Arctic navigation.

Prospective trans-Arctic canals

During the northern summer, Canada’s Northern Transportation Company regularly sails the Beaufort Sea and through Simpson Strait to the outpost of Gjoa Haven at 96 degrees west and 67 degrees north. They also sail on Hudson Bay into Chesterfield Inlet and to the outpost of Baker Lake at 96 degrees west and 64 degrees north, located some 480 kilometres or 30 miles south of Gjoa Haven. Chantrey Inlet extends south to a point some 300 kilometres or 200 miles from Baker Lake. It appears possible to develop a navigable canal through the low lying area, lakes and riverbeds located between Baker Lake and the southern end of Chantrey Inlet or directly into the southeast corner of Queen Maud Gulf.

The Mackenzie River is navigable between the Beaufort Sea to Great Slave Lake, with prospects to extend the barge-navigable channel south along the Slave River into Northern Alberta and Lake Athabasca. It appears possible to extend a navigable canal eastward through Black Lake and into Wollaston Lake, with potential to develop a canal across into Reindeer Lake that empties into the Churchill River that then flows into Hudson Bay at the Port of Churchill. This route passes through several mining regions and could serve their export needs, while also providing an eastwest maritime passage across Canada.

Ship technology

A canal built between Baker Lake and Chantrey Inlet could provide passage for shallow draft coupled barge trains that may be carried aboard larger ocean ships. Semi-submersible ships may carry such barges and/or hover-barges between Asian ports and a port on Chantrey Inlet, also between the port of Baker Lake and European ports. At port, the ships would moor in special locks and partially submerge to the lock floor, to allow barge trains and/or hover-barges to float onboard and off-ship. The carrier ship may be a diesel-electric oceanic ferry with engines located near the bow and feature stern-mounted doors.

Alternatively, a semi-submersible oceanic ferry barge with stern doors may be propelled and steered by a stern-coupled tug. A recent innovation called ‘Seasnake’ involves a scale model prototype of an oceanic train of coupled barges propelled by the combination of a coupled tractor and stern tug. An extreme extended length Seasnake ship could carry barge trains or hover-barges between Canadian Arctic ports and ports in Asia and Europe.

Overland link

Venture capitalists may be reluctant to invest in a trans-Arctic canal due to uncertainty regarding future weather patterns, while the tundra and muskeg terrain between Chantrey Inlet or Queen Maud Gulf and Baker Lake is unable to support the weight of railway lines or roads for heavy trucks. An air cushion technology from Hovertrans Solutions of Singapore involves a concept hover-barge designed to carry up to 2,500 tonnes payload over muskeg and tundra terrain. Hover-barges may serve as the trans-Arctic intermodal link carrying bulk cargo and containers between ships that connect at Chantrey Inlet or Queen Maud Gulf and Baker Lake.


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