Sunday, May 04, 2014

COLD RUSH: Climate Change & the Race for the Arctic

In a time where territorial disputes are dominating international media, the Arctic itself has warmed itself to the same notion of countries staking their maritime claims.  In a different cold war, nation's are battling about how to carve up the Arctic's 5.5 million square miles, as polar ice continues to melt exposing a lucrative frontier market.  In fact, there are several issues involved in this new international interest that involves sovereignty, environmental concerns, indigenous populations, and resource wealth.  What seems like the latest "great game" actually was a race that started over a 100 years ago with Canada's first claim to national sovereignty over Arctic territory based on coordinate lines.  Recent history has seen a spike of activity in the Arctic because the melting has decreased the size of the polar ice-caps by half since the 1980s.  What is at the heart of this matter is the increase in resources available that experts have estimated include one quarter of the world's reserves in oil and gas.

So, who has the rights?  Unlike Antarctica, which is governed by an international treaty, the eight countries that circumscribe the region--Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark (because of Greenland), Canada, and the US--currently have a claim to the frontier.  However, these countries have grown more assertive lately, increasing military exercises and even re-opening Cold War era bases.  Experts project that over $100 billion over the next decade will be invested in the region.  This is an unprecedented level of investment that will be funneled primarily into basic infrastructure that will be capable of supporting the extraction of the resource wealth.  

A group of road signs on an ice-road built to serve gas and oil companies exploring in the Nenets Autonomous Region in the Russian Arctic. In the summer the road will melt away revealing the marshland that lies beneath. 

For the US particularly, it is grappling with how to handle the myriad of issues surrounding the contentious Arctic--even rules of engagement with the endangered polar bear.  The past year has seen a number of publications tackling the strategies and outlook for the northern territory, including the Department of Defense's Arctic Strategy and the White House's National Security Strategy for the Arctic Region.  Most recently, in February, the US Navy released its Arctic Roadmap for 2014-2030 that outlines naval preparations for the region.  The US is definitely not alone in trying to come to terms with the increased traffic of commercial and military vessels as well as drilling and mining activities.  With the unpredictable rate that climate change has affected the Arctic nation's are consumed on how to best approach this in flux region.  What is a plus to this quickly-changing terrain is that the Arctic Council has been and will continue to be critical in ironing out disputes and issues in the region that are bound to get even more complex.  In short, the biggest problem will come down to money, and how each nation will try and protect its interests.  It is pertinent that the levels of cooperation remain cordial, otherwise the area that is already suffering will stand to endure greater tragedy if chaos were to ensue.

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