However strange it may seem, the Arctic is getting warmer – significantly warmer. Temperatures in the region have risen steadily in the past years due to the effects of climate change, causing glaciers that were hitherto considered to be ‘perennial’ to melt away like an ice cream on warm summer’s day (so much so that to date, according to some estimates, 50% of the ice coverage in the Arctic region has been lost). These changes have not only caused disruptions to the inhabitants of the region, as well as to its flora and fauna, but have also triggered a rush among the nations that surround the Arctic to claim the seaways and the seabed that have opened up and are available for economic exploitation.
Specifically, the USA, Russia, Norway, Canada and Denmark are all stakeholders in this “great game” of the North. Russia and Canada in particular are the main players in this complex game of geopolitical chess. Specifically, two things are at stake due to the melting of the glaciers: control over the mythical Northwest and Northeast Passages, which are shorter than most transcontinental shipping routes and would reduce freight costs, and, especially, control over the abundant energy resources that lie beneath the Arctic Ocean’s seabed and which are now becoming accessible (the US Geological Survey estimated in 2008 that about one quarter of the remaining global hydrocarbon reserves lie under the Arctic waters).
Who owns the seabed?
The way for countries to obtain control over these resources is to prove that the seafloor under the Arctic waters constitutes a submerged extension of their ‘continental shelves’ (meaning that the land underwater must be geologically connected to their territory above water), as required by the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. Nations are therefore rushing research expeditions to the North Pole in the hope that these will prove that the underwater geology of the Arctic is similar to that of their own country. These missions, while cloaked under the guise of scientific endeavors, are therefore politically motivated. The most spectacular of these expeditions has been the Russian “Arktika 2007” expedition, which culminated with the planting of a Russian flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole, provoking angry reactions on the part of Canadian authorities.
Currently, a specific UN Commission (created ad hoc by the Convention on the Law of the Seas) is tasked with evaluating the claims made by states regarding the extension of their continental shelf and making recommendations on the matter. Therefore, at least for the moment, there is no overarching treaty governing the Arctic region specifically (unlike Antarctica, which is protected from exploitation by a tailor-made international treaty). This turns the region into a weak point within the field of international law, making it prone to unilateral actions by states.
Militarization of the Arctic
Unfortunately, the developments have recently taken an ominous turn, as nations surrounding the Arctic have started to build up their military capacities in the region in the hope of strengthening their claims. In particular, Canada has organized naval exercises, Russia is building new military icebreakers and has resumed strategic bomber flights in the region that were suspended after the end of Cold War and, most recently, Norway has stated that it will establish an “Arctic Battalion”, specially trained and outfitted for the conditions of the region.
There is therefore a clear trend towards a militarization of the region, which has the potential of becoming one of the geopolitical flashpoints of the 21st century. The Arctic nations feel that the role of the UN as an arbiter of the disputes in the region might not be strong enough, and that they might therefore have to rely on their strength to assert their claims. While the risk of military interventions is low, there is an undeniable danger in renouncing cooperation in favor of competition and confrontation, especially given the potential for escalation of tensions.
Surprisingly, the US plays a somewhat secondary role in this confrontation. This is because, although it has significant interests in the region (through Alaska), it cannot easily defend them because it has not yet ratified the Law of the Seas Convention due to internal political squabbling. This implies that the US cannot request to have new portions of Arctic seabed assigned to it through the extension of its continental shelf.
Past militarization: Icy tactics during the Cold War
It is true that the Arctic has been militarized in the past without causing significant problems to the international community. In particular, the region was of some strategic importance during the Cold War, as it was the easiest path for American and Soviet nuclear missiles to reach their respective ideological rivals. For this same reason, the region was regularly patrolled by Soviet and American strategic bombers and nuclear submarines.
However, what was missing during the Cold War were the economic incentives, which meant that for both sides it was prudent to keep any potential conflicts in the freezer, thereby avoiding dangerous confrontations between the two nuclear superpowers. Moreover, due to the ideological struggle between East and West, potential conflicts between NATO member states in the Arctic (principally regarding territorial demarcations) were also kept at bay. These frozen conflicts have now sprung up again due to the end of the Cold War and the economic incentive provided by the thaw of the glaciers.
Therefore, compared to the Cold War years, the current situation is more chaotic and more anarchic. Several players are competing to establish a foothold in this 21st century gold rush, meaning that the current military buildup might be less predictable, less controllable and more dangerous compared to that which occurred as a product of the Cold War.
This is a nonprofit explanation.