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Geopolitics of the Arctic: While Caps Melt, Disputes Heighten

The increasing warming of the Arctic is raising environmental risks as well as territorial disputes among the surrounding countries namely: the United States, Russia, Norway, Denmark, and Canada. 

Geography plays a big role in separating borders and shaping the interest of nations. Hence, when geographic changes occur, shifts in national interests make a turn as well. Global climate change has pushed the Arctic into the center of geopolitics as melting ice transforms the surrounding countries into a national security, commercial and environmental concern.

The importance of the Arctic is seen through its accessibility to navigate through its waters.  In the decades to come, climate change will make the arctic pathways and resources more accessible. This is seen as an economic advantage that can open multiple countries to trade, commercial shipping, oil and gas exploration and much more. Research shows that the September Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 12.8 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

The increasingly heated water temperatures are shifting the natural balance of the sea ice and heavily impacting the sea-life ecosystem. In 2009, almost 3,500 walruses gathered on Alaska’s north-west coast off the Chukchi Sea because of melting ice.

In 2007, more than one million square miles of ice has diminished, thus the area is left with half of the ice that was present in 1950. This is not limited to the North American Arctic since the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s north coast has witnessed similar ice changes, spearheading Russia into a larger access route to its plentiful Siberian resources.

This leads to stronger assertions of their sovereignty across the polar sea. The Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University brought in experts on the Arctic, foreign policy, climate change, and national security to discuss three vital topics that will require major attention. These include: resource extraction, widening sea lanes and national security and geopolitical concerns.

Artic Shifts and Environmental Concerns

Satellite images from the past decades reveal unquestionable evidence of receding arctic ice. This, in turn, causes deep environmental consequences such as the migration of different animal species. Several countries will be affected as well namely the Netherlands, Maldives, and Bangladesh in terms of increased flooding. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic region holds 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its oil.

The Arctic’s one-of-a-kind attributes are under threat both from an environmental and political standpoint. The frozen ocean is now a concept of the past and it is now meshed with warmer and more saline Atlantic waters. The skies above the Arctic are also introducing more tropical breezes from the South.

Sea ice is disintegrating at an alarming pace of nearly 10,000 tonnes per second. Another fact is that by 2035, the Arctic is predicted to be completely depleted of ice during the summer months which will allow ships to enter through the north pole.

Military Buildup and Conflicts In Trade Routes

While environmental shifts rise, geopolitical tensions heat up as well. In a 2008 assessment, the US Geological Survey estimated that the areas north of the Arctic Circle hold roughly 90 billion barrels of oil, 47 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. All in all, the Arctic holds about 22% of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon resources. Large energy companies such as Shell, Exxon Mobil are already battling for drilling licenses.

The UNCLOS oversees the Arctic region, thus the rules of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) also applies in this region. The EEZ lies beyond the territorial waters and extends 370 km from the shore. Although it can be extended to 650 km through scientific measurement of the continental shelf. If a country submits scientific evidence to measure the continental shelf, a country can extend their EEZ.

This can cause countries to claim all the natural resources and waters within the given area. Denmark, Canada, Norway, Russia and the United States have already forwarded their respective claims to the United Nations in 2016. Russia is reopening and strengthening cold war bases on the Kola peninsula in the far north-west of the country. While Norway is reinforcing its military presence in the high Arctic.

The UNCLOS is overseeing the Arctic with the help of the Arctic Council. In addition, bilateral agreements and competing claims are currently being sorted. It’s only a matter of time until we see the developments of legal frameworks to manage the maritime traffic and hopefully this will result in mutual benefits for all nations.


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