In Columns

Canada is one of eight countries that have sovereign rights over the polar ice cap, all considered Arctic nations. There are five that border the Arctic Ocean: Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Russia, and United States. Historically there have been few arguments over ownership of the polar ice cap, however, as more and more of the untapped resources of this area are being identified, the question and claim of ownership is escalating for obvious reasons. A 2016 article in the Visual Capitalist noted that a “receding Arctic sea ice is unlocking fathomless mineral resources”. There are an estimated 90 million barrels of undiscovered oil deposits within the Arctic Circle. This is close to 6% of the world’s known oil reserves. The estimated size of Arctic natural gas resources is 1,699 trillion cubic feet, equal to 24% of the world’s known reserves. Most of these resources are expected to lay offshore. Other valued minerals and metals in the Arctic include gold, diamonds, copper, iron, zinc, uranium and rare minerals. The quantity and value of these resources speaks to their importance in the global economy and certainly to those countries who can lay claim to the rights for their ownership.

The vast potential for economic development in the north has been acclaimed by the investment community. Perhaps one of the more telling commentaries comes from the Chief Investment Officer of Guggenheim Partners, Scott Miner, who has called the Arctic “the best investment opportunity of the last 12,000 years”. He has further noted “from an investment standpoint, the average economic growth of the Arctic region is the highest in the world, relative to any country, or any continent.”

The latest WWF report notes that climate change is one three key factors that is transforming the Arctic. Change is taking place at an astonishing rate. Climate change is unlocking access to the once unavailable resources, opening water transportation routes with receding ice on the Arctic Ocean. The rate of this change is reported as sea ice cover declining at a rate of 10-20 days per decade.

This barely touches the evidence of the economic potential offered by the Arctic. Estimates of investments in the next several decades in the Arctic exceeds US$1 trillion dollars with planned projects already exceeding $600 billion in investments.

Economic Boom Opportunity for the Engineering Industry

This planned and potential investment in the North bodes well for the engineering industry. The engineering community has already benefited from investments, essentially in infrastructure systems supporting historic resource developments (gold and zinc mines and diamond mining in more recent years). It is the engineering industry that leads and implements the design and management of construction of the infrastructure systems required to support these types of development. A recent WWF Report identifies the largest economic sectors in the Arctic include mining and petroleum, public sector, services, construction, fishing and resource processing. All these economic sectors require infrastructure systems to support their development – transportation systems (water, air, land), water supply systems, wastewater systems, power and energy systems, community infrastructure systems and more. This is the engineering industry’s domain. Opportunity abounds for engineering in the north.
If this seems all too good to be true, it is!

Responsibilities and Obligations of the Engineering Industry

The north is unique, particularly in a Canadian context. Canada’s north covers 4 million square kilometres (40% of Canada’s land mass). Only 3% of Canada’s population resides in the north (117,000 population, half of whom are indigenous). Historically, the north has experienced modest resource development (gold, diamonds, zinc), traditional economies (i.e. hunting, trapping, arts and crafts), growing tourism and fishing sectors and public sector growth.

However, the level of activity in any of these sectors is relatively small in terms of the Canadian economy. The north contributes approximately 1% annually to Canada’s GDP. But based on the potential, this is going to change. In essence Canada is starting with a clean slate when it is dealing with the Arctic. Development is going to occur in areas that are natural and untouched. How the infrastructure systems are implemented will impact the ability of the economic sectors to grow. More importantly, however, is how this infrastructure will impact a sensitive, untouched natural environment and the local indigenous residents. Scientific research is demonstrating a highly sensitive environment that is influencing and being influenced by broader global climatic changes in significant ways.

The design and management of the construction of new infrastructure systems is the Engineering industry’s domain. Herein, the Engineering industry has an obligation to not just work in the back rooms designing the infrastructure systems others have decided are needed to support the economic growth, but to influence, plan and design these infrastructure systems with a sustainability lens that will protect the environment from impacts that maintain the social systems and ecosystems against serious negative impacts. This will require innovation in a way we have never seen it applied. The Engineering industry needs to understand the end goal of sustainability and undertake the research, invention and pilot investigations that lead to new approaches, new concepts and new ways of supporting growth in a new territory with technologies that may not have even been invented yet. It is a brave new world.

Reliance on hydrocarbon power and energy systems was the fuel that drove the historical economy of North America. What our ancestors failed to address in a sustainable way was the negative impacts this would have on the environment and the earth’s ability to sustain this reliance. Our ancestors did not understand or did not have in view that the earth’s ecological footprint is finite, that it has limits. What the engineering industry of today and tomorrow must understand is the need to find infrastructure solutions that work within the limits of earth’s ecological capacity and in some cases to reverse the extent to which this capacity has been used, returning it to a sustainable state.

A United Voice for a Common Goal

The engineering industry includes many areas of expertise and practice – civil, structural, electrical, mechanical, chemical, nuclear, biological, geotechnical, etc. In one way or another they all play a role in the development of infrastructure systems. The disparate technologies do not always work together. They each have their own organizations and institutional societies that promote their area of expertise and practice. The Engineering Institute of Canada (EIC) is unique in this respect in that it is a federation of engineering societies that include 12 different engineering disciplines representing some 25,000 professional engineers across Canada. EIC is a non-profit organization originally founded in 1887 with a vision statement “Engineering for a prosperous, safe and profitable Canada.” At its fall 2018 Council meeting EIC agreed to engage in a program to add its engineering voice in the national conversations about the Arctic and the development of sustainable infrastructure systems that will support the economic opportunities in the north. EIC has undertaken the challenge of bringing a sustainability lens to the influencers of decisions being made about developing infrastructure systems in the north through policies and programs of key stakeholders. Integrated discussions, education and research are essential involving the engineering industry’s engagement with social and natural science experts, climate change researchers, economists, policy-makers, indigenous community representations and other stakeholders.

Concluding Comment

When Christopher Columbus first landed on the shores of North America in 1492, looking for a shorter water route to lucrative trading opportunities with Asia, he found a new untouched world, one with vast economic opportunities beyond the riches that he searched for in Asia. Columbus may not have realized it at the time, but his discovery set a course of different stages of exceptional economic growth and development over the next 500 years, including the industrial revolution that proved costly in terms of global sustainability. If the world knew then what we know today about the impacts of this growth on the world’s ecosystems and had a mindset to protect that environment, one wonders what the world would look like today. Instead, we are now trying to undo the damaging impacts of these development approaches in an effort for global survival.

Climate change and technology are unlocking a new untouched world in the Arctic. The engineering industry has an opportunity and an obligation to determine first, the right thing to do in terms of global sustainability in developing infrastructure systems in the Arctic. Only then can the right infrastructure systems be designed and constructed such that real and effective sustainability goals can be achieved.

Reg Andres, P. Eng., FCSCE, FEIC, is the President of the Engineering Institute of Canada, www.eic-ici.ca.

Reference Documents:
  • Government of Canada, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada – Toward a New Arctic Policy Framework 2018
  • WWF – 2018 Report, Getting It Right in a New Ocean: Bringing Sustainable Blue Economy Principles to the Arctic
  • Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency – Building a Strong North Together 2016
  • WWF-Canada Posting November 26, 2018 – Vast Potential for Arctic Economy Identified in new WWF Report
  • World Economic Forum – 6 Charts to Help You Become an Arctic Expert 2015
  • Visual Capitalist – After the Ice: Mineral Riches of the Arctic 2016
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