At one end of the planet, where temperature changes in recent years have begun to affect it strongly, there is a neutral zone, which for decades had been kept away from geopolitical tensions.
However, under the pretext of climate change, the Arctic, and especially its northern part, is once again in the foreground, since the conflict of strategic interests and geopolitical interests, of not a few nations, has actively entered the global agenda, as reported by Bloomberg. .
Arctic: “Clash” of giants with their eyes on oil and natural gas
The Arctic Council
The management of the Arctic is suddenly called into question, as a result of the isolation of Russia, the largest claimant of the Arctic, by the war in Ukraine. The Arctic Council, the main body for cooperation among the eight nations that share guardianship, is at a standstill. Their meetings have been suspended since last year, and no one is sure what will happen after May 11, when Russia hands over the rotating presidency to Norway.
Russia remains a member of the council and will therefore participate “in principle” in any decisions or activities, said Thomas Winkler, the Kingdom of Denmark’s Arctic ambassador. But how that would play out in the current political climate “is still up for consideration,” he said. “I just don’t have an answer,” he added.
The low-profile, non-conflict status quo is being challenged, jeopardizing the scientific cooperation that flourished after the end of the Cold War.
The “controversy” over ownership of the Arctic
Who controls the “top” of the planet depends on one’s perspective. Although no one “owns” the North Pole, the landlocked countries that ring the central Arctic Ocean already have rights that somehow extend beyond their shores under international law.
Now three of them, Russia, Canada and Denmark, on behalf of the self-governing dependent territory of Greenland, are advocating broader sovereign rights over what lies beneath the ocean, a vast section of the Arctic seafloor that stretches along from the North Pole.
The way the borders are demarcated depends on how far the continental shelf extends beyond the coasts of each country. All three countries claim that their continental shelf extends to an underwater mountain range called the Lomonosov Ridge.
The Lomonosov Range stretches from Canada and Greenland to Siberia, or vice versa.
Countries will still be able to travel freely through international waters. However, the natural resources below these waters could be vast and are available for mining. Thus, the “controversy” could have significant implications for both the climate and who controls energy resources.
Russia’s strategic priority
Changes to Russia’s Arctic strategy, as outlined in a foreign policy document signed by Putin on March 31, remove references to “constructive international cooperation.” Under it, Russia pledges to push back hostile states hoping to militarize the region and forge closer cooperative ties with non-Arctic states that “pursue a constructive policy toward Russia,” a possible reference to China, which also has ambitions. in the polar region.
The United States, another Arctic power, remains “engaged” in the region, a State Department spokesman said. But Russia’s actions against Ukraine “suspend the cooperation, coordination and interaction that characterize the work of the Arctic Council,” he added.
Finland applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in response to Putin’s aggression and was accepted on April 4. If Sweden does eventually join, Russia will be the only Arctic power not to be a member of the alliance.
Overlapping rights claims to the seabed
Russia, Denmark, and Canada claim that the pole-spanning Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the continental shelf that continues from their coastline to the central Arctic Ocean. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, this would grant exclusive sovereign rights to natural resources above and below the polar seabed, beyond exclusive economic zones that extend up to 200 nautical miles from their shores.
Meanwhile, the US has not ratified the UN Convention, but may still be preparing its own claim.
“The United States has been collecting data for decades in the Arctic, and we keep hearing how they might make a claim about their rights in the region,” said Rebecca Pincus, director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington center. group of experts
Gaining access to potentially lucrative resources is one of the main reasons countries claim ownership of the Arctic. Although still largely unexplored, the Arctic seafloor is believed to contain vast reserves of critical fossil fuels, metals and minerals that will become more accessible as global warming melts the ice.
The most recent assessment around the Arctic by the US Geological Survey was conducted in 2008. It was estimated that approximately 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of gas lie within the Arctic Circle. , along with critical metals and minerals needed for power generation. generation. .
However, most of what is known is limited to studies of the earth. The offshore metal deposits of the Arctic continental shelf are still largely unexplored, although the geology suggests they could be significant.
Exactly when it will be economically feasible to mine the polar seafloor remains an unanswered question. Climate change will facilitate access to these areas for exploration and mining. The Arctic is warming up to four times faster than the rest of the planet, and that rate is accelerating. In its State of the Cryosphere 2022 report, the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI) concluded that there will be ice-free summers in the Arctic before 2050.
This is expected to amplify a series of catastrophic climate-related consequences. While ice protects Earth by reflecting heat from the sun, water does the opposite, accelerating warming. Changes in the temperature gap between the rapidly warming Arctic and lower latitudes may make global weather patterns even more extreme, while ice loss and changes in ocean circulation are altering habitats. of marine mammals.
Changes on the land create their own feedback loops in the Arctic. Thawing permafrost releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accelerating warming, making thawing easier. Melting glaciers are causing sea levels to rise faster and faster.
Economic development in the Arctic poses risks to indigenous peoples, biodiversity and, especially in the case of fossil fuel development, a climate that is already changing faster than humans can adapt.
Current mining plans
Russia, which has been drilling for oil in the Arctic for the past decade, pledged in its Arctic Strategy to increase production by 2035, though its most ambitious plans are on hold due to sanctions.
While the US recently approved the $8 billion Willow oil project in Alaska, it is restricting offshore oil drilling in Arctic waters. Norway has offshore fields above the Arctic Circle, but its bid to license new oil exploration in the Barents Sea is facing legal challenges.
In 2021, Greenland canceled plans for further oil exploration, saying the climate impacts were too high.
The extraction of fossil fuels in a part of the world that is critical to the climate “defense” of the planet is extremely controversial. But the acquisition of sovereign rights over offshore resources could have as much to do with protection as with exploitation.
In Putin’s mind
Conditions that allow the exploitation of Arctic resources “also increase risks and social unrest,” the ICCI (international climate agency) said in a report. “Such profound and adverse impacts will almost certainly dwarf any temporary economic benefits that result from an ice-free ‘summer’ Arctic.”
In 2007, as Putin neared the end of his second term as president, Russia placed a flag on the seabed at the North Pole as a symbolic sign of its claim to the Arctic.
Sixteen years later, Putin is still in power and has the same aspirations. For now, the North Pole, one of the most pristine places on Earth, belongs to everyone and no one at the same time.