Warming up to Arctic prospects

June 5
Map of Arctic Shipping Routes (Map: Arctic Portal Library/available [http://library.arcticportal.org/1498/])
Map of Arctic Shipping Routes (Arctic Portal Library: /http://library.arcticportal.org/1498/)

April 2014 was the hottest April in recorded history across the globe, according to new data released by the National Climactic Data Center. While higher temperatures affect the world as a whole, the Arctic region is experiencing the brunt of the consequences of global warming. Arctic sea ice is melting, changing the environment and landscape of the High North and increasing accessibility to this remote region.

However, not all countries are pessimistic about these Arctic changes. Why? Three valuable resources: oil, natural gas and trade routes, made accessible with the melting of sea ice. The exploitation of natural resources and control of international shipping routes will be very profitable for countries with territorial claims in the region.

With so much at stake, countries are already gearing up to flex their political muscles. Taking the lead are the coastal Arctic states – Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland – each with the goal of taking advantage of the melting sea ice and asserting their sovereignty in the region. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon (conventional oil and natural gas) reserves are  within the Arctic region.

In addition, the melting of Arctic sea ice is opening up new shipping routes and for longer periods of time. The Northwest Passage, Northern Sea Routes, and the Arctic Bridge are the Arctic shipping routes that could dramatically decrease travel times between Eastern and Western markets, providing an alternative to the Panama and Suez Canals in the near future. Given this potential, in the past decade, Arctic states have become increasingly assertive in terms of both political rhetoric and militarization in the region.

But not all Arctic states approach the region in identical ways. Rather than engaging in an all-out race to control oil reserves, Arctic states’ interests rest at the intersection of various global and national interests. In addition to oil, natural gas and shipping routes, some Arctic states must address issues facing indigenous populations, environmental regulations and concerns associated with global climate change. This range of interests results in Arctic states pursuing different goals.

The U.S., Russia and Canada emerge as the most aggressive in their claims to Arctic territory. This trio cites sovereignty and control of these resource-rich lands as main policy objective in their respective Arctic policies. Canadian, Russian and American interests translate into a more aggressive presence in the region. Canada runs a scenario known as Operation NANOOK annually, allowing Canadian Forces to simulate real-life experiences to better protect Canada’s interests in the High North. The U.S. government recently released the National Strategy for the Arctic Region listing advancing national security interests as its number one policy objective in the region. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently stated that Russia should increase its presence in the Arctic to reinforce its claims over oil and natural gas reserves in the region. Sovereignty and territory are by no means the only objectives of these three countries; however these interests dominate their respective Arctic policies.

Sweden and Finland’s Arctic objectives, on the other hand, are concerned more with responsible Arctic stewardship in the form of environmental protection. Neither state has direct access to Arctic waters, meaning it would be difficult for either to make a territorial push north or to exploit offshore oil and natural gas reserves. Sweden argues that strengthening the Arctic Council, the non-governmental organization that facilitates cooperation among Arctic states concerning issues in the region, should be a priority, to increase international efforts to protect the region’s environment. Finland hopes to indirectly profit from the exploitation of resources in the region by developing its Arctic maritime industry and shipping, becoming the world leader in Arctic technologies and ensuring that resource exploitation is environmentally conscious.

As Arctic ice melts, the High North is an increasingly accessible and important region. Arctic states are eager to explore and exploit the resources of this region. While the ice will not be gone by the end of this year, or for some time yet, with so much wealth at stake, states are not waiting to take action. Even non-Arctic states are expressing an interest in the region; 12 non-arctic countries have observer status at the Arctic Council, including China, India and Japan. Recently, a Chinese investor made an offer to buy a large area of land on Norway’s Arctic archipelago, giving China a potential foothold along Arctic shipping routes.

It may be cold and dark for much of the year, but the Arctic is a region of economic possibility. The question is not whether states will take advantage of these opportunities, but rather how environmentally and socially responsible they will be in doing so.

Dylan Ciccarelli is  Colby College student majoring in Government from Toronto, Canada. 

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