In a matter of decades, the Arctic will be entirely ice-free every summer. Scientists are projecting that day to be sometime in the late summer by the end of the 2030s, according to a recent U.S. congressional report.
It is a combination of climate change and new sea technology that’s making the Arctic increasingly accessible, experts say. The fabled Northwest Passage opened for shipping for the first time in the summer of 2008. Every year since, it has been open for a period of about six weeks during summer.
Commercial traffic, pleasure cruises, and adventurers are already taking advantage of the new northern route.
The Northern Sea route, also called the Northeast Passage, on the Russian’s side of the Arctic is also becoming available as the Arctic ice melts.
“The Arctic Ocean is becoming an ocean like any other,” says Rob Huebert, an associate professor at the University of Calgary in Canada, who has written extensively on Arctic sovereignty. “The question then becomes, who has a right to go fishing there?”
The issue isn’t only fishing rights. The Arctic accounts for around 22 percent of the world’s oil, gas, and other resources, according to a 2008 U.S. Geological Survey report, making it very attractive to the major world powers.
As access increases, the geopolitics of who owns the Arctic is starting to play out, says Vincent Gallucci, professor at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington.
The Arctic Ocean is becoming an ocean like any other.
—Rob Huebert, University of Calgary
“Many countries, some that have nothing to do with the Arctic, would like access to Arctic resources. There’s significant jockeying going on,” says Gallucci.
After Russia planted its flag on the North Pole’s sea floor in August 2007, other major Arctic players like the European Union, the United States, Canada, and the Nordic countries also announced Arctic policies of their own.
Canada wants to claim the Northwest Passage as historic internal waters and has drawn a line along all nearby Arctic islands. But both the EU and the United States have challenged the claim through diplomatic protest, says James Kraska, professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. Their protest prevents the claim from being granted under international law.
Russians, aggressive contenders for Arctic sovereignty, have 18 icebreakers, the largest fleet in the world. They also laid claim with the United Nations in 2001 to Arctic resources of an underwater-extended shelf, the Lomonosov Ridge, that spans nearly half the Arctic.
“The resources are tremendous, but the access to the Arctic makes the region so strategically important that it’s impossible for the Russians to overestimate it,” says Gallucci.
If the claim is accepted, the territory “won’t be considered downtown Moscow, but no one else will be able to exploit resources there,” says Kraska. The U.N. recommended in 2002 that Russia resubmit another application along with more scientific evidence. The flag at the sea bottom of the North Pole in 2007 was part of an expedition for more information to support the claim.
On the other hand, the United States has only one operational icebreaker after two exceeded their 30-year life spans, according to the congressional report published in April. The U.S. Senate also hasn’t ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty on sea rights, meaning Washington can’t formally claim any resources past the 200-mile economic zone that every coastal state gets.
However, the United States is one of eight Arctic states involved in the Arctic Council, an international forum meant to promote cooperation. The other seven states include Canada, Denmark (which owns Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden.
“The United States has actually been a rather subdued, quiet player. It’s much more of a conflict between Russia and everyone else,” Kraska says.
Non-Arctic states are also eager to gain a foothold in the region. China has failed to win observer status on the Arctic Council multiple times. The six countries that have won the status are France, the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain.
Some countries, including Russia and Canada, are doubling up on their military sea power as part of the initiative to gain control. The congressional report noted that some observers see the Arctic as a “potential emerging security issue.”
Stronger militaries in the Arctic can lead to either global cooperation or the start of an arms race, according to a recent report by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Virginia. The Arctic Council isn’t allowed to discuss military security problems, a condition that might lead to countries grouping together in other ways, warns the report.
Another potential problem that the advances in oil and gas exploration may bring is a chance of oil spills. Technology in the Arctic isn’t advanced enough to properly handle a spill should one occur. Skeptics are quick to point out that BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 took three months to cap, in the highly accessible Gulf of Mexico.
“In the Arctic, the consequences of an oil spill could be so long-lasting, so devastating, and so free of anyone who would be able to pour billions of dollars into recovery efforts,” says Gallucci.
“At the moment the Arctic Council is a relatively weak organization with relatively little authority. Any resources it has come from the member states and those states have their own national needs. So there would be few resources to clean up the spill.”
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