The arctic is the northernmost region on earth; a place abundant with unreachable resources, few people, and a lot of ice. This is how it is changing.
If you hold a globe with your hands, you will have an easier understanding of the arctic region. Most likely you will be able to identify the North Pole and apparently, Santa Claus lives on water. Every year, the ice on the region shrinks and grows, but for this last few years it has been shrinking at an alarming rate that will lead to an even faster disappearance of the sea ice, and of course, increasing global warming, making Santa choose which country of the Arctic circle he has to live in: Russia, Canada, USA, the Danish region of Greenland, Norway, Finland, or Iceland, which have all been blessed with this unreachable frontiers.
It seems that there are quite some goodies underneath all that ice. 1962 marks the first major discovery, when the Soviet Union of oil and gas fields in western Siberia, holding the largest natural gas reserves on earth. Across the arctic sea, 1977 marks the start of oil exploration in Alaska. US administration reports that about 77% of the world undiscovered natural gas is located in this region versus 22% of undiscovered petroleum reserves.
“Geopolitics in the high north” research programme concluded that it is unlikely for any importance to be given to the region on the short-medium term, stating of course that the long term is not predictable since the economic values received by a viable exploration keep changing. It might be due to its low population density, being home close about to 4 million people, living in a decreasingly holistic way due to the pressures of globalization and industrialization, but still maintaining the tradition of cooperation.
In fact this people might see the arrival of new products and new ways of living due to the newly available cargo-ship routes, sporting new and different possibilities not only for the region but for the world. Less ice means you don`t need an ice-breaker ship to break all the ice for commercial passage, cutting time from going all the way through Panama or Egypt’s Suez Canal. From 5 ships in 2009, the northern route, on the Siberian side, had 71 last year, displaying a significant increase of traffic.
Eventually it came the time when offshore resources had to be regulated and international law stepped up in 1982 with the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea, shortened by UNCLOS but giving enough space for states to dispute some maritime borders, this including of course, the arctic.
On a more positive note, exploration so far didn`t amount any vast resources in the disputed continental shelves that extend the exclusive economic zones into conflict. For the most part of its history, it has remained as a peaceful area with strong possibilities of cooperation among the member states of the Arctic Council, which joined the mentioned states plus Sweden on a new intergovernmental organization working on the environment, the indigenous people, and conducting studies on recent climate changes, basically addressing issues of the people of high north, while still not being a legally binding organization, limiting its reach. Despite having been created after the dismissal of the Soviet Union, its member didn`t trust it enough to give it power and responsibility over peace and security concerns.
Unfortunately, with the recent stalemate between its members, a new race to the north might start. In 2007 private funds lead two submarines to plant a Russian flag underwater under dispute. Now, in 2014, it seems like the space for cooperation is riddled with competition in somewhere that during cold war was prospected for its reduced war possibilities. 30 years after, Russia is ready to reactivate soviet era-facilities and to have combined armed forces in the arctic by 2020 whilst NATO countries are to develop a strategy concerning the region.
But the most interesting part about this cold and abundant region is the fact that many other states “observe” the activity in the region with great emphasis through the Arctic Council. Whilst Russia and Canada clearly have high territorial stakes that demand a strong presence and respective equipment, China is an increasingly demanding ally to the smaller Nordic states it conducts business with, having advantages in the new routes and in the opportunities to explore the region`s resources.
It is then becoming evident, the rise of a different new cold war, driven by global warming. It is important to maintain the cool about this region but surely doesn`t cut it if we only care when Green Peace strikes. The Arctic Council needs to be reinforced so that every demand can be met and the rise of the temperature doesn`t mean a rise of tensions. Enough with ice puns.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons – RIA Novosti