Battle for the Arctic is heating up
Rising access to reserves is risking flashpoints between nations wanting to exploit the region, warns Robin McKie
Kristian Jensen, Denmark's foreign minister, gave a precise response last week to a request by Russia for the nations to enter bilateral talks over the ownership of the North Pole. He flatly rejected the move. "We need to apply the international rules," he said.
The Russian request and the swift Danish response are intriguing. The UN is currently assessing Russian, Danish and Canadian claims to own sizeable chunks of the Arctic seabed. The Russian move was generally viewed as an attempt to strike a deal that would cut out Canada, while Denmark appears to believe its case is strong enough to exclude such manoeuvres.
One thing is clear. The Arctic is heating up in meteorological, political and environmental terms as nations fall over themselves to exploit the region.
Apart from Denmark's rebuff of Russia's Arctic overtures, Canadian explorers announced last week they had discovered the wreck of HMS Terror, one of the two ships belonging to British explorer Sir John Franklin's doomed attempt to sail the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. (The other expedition ship, Erebus, was discovered two years ago.) These vessels have enormous symbolic importance because Canada believes they support its claim to own the passage, which other nations, such as the US, argue is international waters.
Then there were the recent moves by China to invest in mines in Greenland, where declining ice cover is exposing vast outcrops of ores, including minerals crucial to mobile phone manufacture. Similarly, drilling companies are eyeing seabed reserves of gas and oil while travel companies are preparing to send huge cruise liners into the region. The first of these trips, by the Crystal Serenity, has just been completed.
Enormous forces, political and commercial, are bearing down on the region, although all have a common root - as was also highlighted last week. Summer sea ice, which once covered 7.5m sq km around the North Pole, this year dropped to 4.13m sq km, its second lowest figure on record. The rate of annual change - brought about by soaring fossil fuel emissions and rises in global temperatures - is now equivalent to a loss greater than the size of Scotland.
"Loss of sea ice has local to global effects, from animals and ecosystems to encouraging further warming by exposing ocean water," said Twila Moon, at Bristol University. "We should all be shocked by the dramatic changes happening in the Arctic."
Most scientists now expect that, at current emission rates, the Arctic will be reliably free of sea ice in the summer by the middle of the century. By "free" they mean there will be less than 1m sq km of sea ice left in the Arctic, most of it packed into remote bays and channels while the central Arctic Ocean over the north pole will be completely open.
"The Arctic is opening up, and all sorts of flashpoints lie ahead," said Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London. "If the central Arctic Ocean is freed of ice for several months a year, who will control the fishing and the dumping of waste there? The Russians have also made it clear they want to drill for oil and gas."
Already there are profound changes, with invasive species pouring into the warming Arctic and threatening existing populations, according to Melanie Lancaster of WWF's Arctic programme. "Specialised Arctic species such as polar bears [are already] showing signs of stress. Conservation action is urgently needed."
However, the Arctic, its wildlife and its four million inhabitants face a major handicap: the region's lack of centralised protection and control. The Antarctic Treaty bans all mining, oil drilling or the presence of the military, and strictly monitors all environmental hazards around the South Pole. By contrast, although no nation owns the North Pole, the Arctic nations - Russia, Canada, the US, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark - have very different ideas about how to run the world's most northerly regions.
"Arctic environmental protection is currently determined by individual nations, by politicians who often meet far from its borders: in Moscow, Copenhagen and Washington," said Professor Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia. "They have very different levels of commitment to protecting the environment."
And it is not just the Arctic nations who are eyeing up the riches around the North Pole. China recently assigned itself the status of being "a near-Arctic state". It views the opening Arctic seas as an opportunity to maintain its access to the world's most important resources. Some of the Earth's major stocks of fish are migrating north as the planet heats up while the Arctic's mineral resources are being exposed by retreating ice.
"The Chinese have made no secret that they have their eyes on the Arctic's fish and minerals," said Dodds.
This raises the question of what the Inuit and other Arctic people think about resources being exploited by others. "They are not against resource development but they do like to be consulted and involved," said Dodds. "They do not want to be cheated." Byers was cautious. "I have enormous sympathy for the local peoples in the Arctic but they are few in number and have limited resources," he said.
Relations with indigenous people are one of the flashpoints that may trigger serious disputes in the region. There is already bitterness among the Inuit about their treatment in the past, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is currently investigating the serious abuse that thousands of children received in residential schools last century.
Of all the Arctic nations, Russia has been the most determined to exploit the region as it warms, however. "You can see that determination in the way it responded to the Arctic 30 incident," said Duncan Depledge, director, All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions Secretariat. In 2013, Greenpeace activists attempted to scale the Prirazlomnaya drilling platform as part of a protest against Arctic oil production.
Russians arrested them at gunpoint and charged the activists initially with piracy and later with hooliganism and only released them after two months of detention.
Dodds said: "The Russians are hell-bent on showing the world they mean business here."
Could that determination lead to an outbreak of hostilities? Byers said: "The Arctic is a very expensive region in which to operate and Russia is not a wealthy country. The cost of militarising the Arctic would be prohibitive. They might want to police it, but I don't see them having a war with another Arctic nation."
The implications for the region are still worrying, nevertheless. As Professor Chris Rapley, of University College London, stated: "The ongoing thinning [of Arctic summer sea ice] is especially significant and the implications are profound. The Arctic nations are jostling for advantage, and the economic and ecological consequences of new trade routes opening up have yet to unfold. The changes that have occurred have been greater and faster than predicted. The planet is sending a clear message: time is running out."