In the late summer of 2007, in the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean, two submarines descended deep beneath the ice. The exploration itself wasn’t unprecedented. Scientific missions are routine in the Arctic during the summer months. But this was no scientific mission. Upon reaching the ocean floor, one of the submarines used a mechanical arm to firmly plant the Russian flag into the seabed.
The Kremlin was laying its claim, and letting the world know. Swift condemnation of Russia’s actions descended from all corners of the globe. Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay tartly remarked that “this isn’t the 15th century,” where countries proclaimed ownership of territory by the planting of a flag.
Perhaps not. Yet the race to divide up the Arctic, previously considered a global commons, was heating up fast. Canada itself would respond by later announcing a series of new military bases in the region. Norway followed by proclaiming sovereignty over land literally stretching up to the North Pole. Denmark and the United States followed with claims of their own, and even China voiced its desires to get a piece of the action. It seemed, at the dawn of the 21st century, that one of the last untouched regions on Earth was undergoing an old-fashioned imperial scramble.
The timing of these claims is tied to the sudden, rapid melting of Arctic ice. Global warming is by definition a problem across the planet, but the Arctic is warming twice as fast as everywhere else. This summer in particular set an alarming new record in terms of total ice loss when the area of frozen sea shrank to less than 3.5 million square kilometers, showing a roughly 45% decline since 1979. Scientists estimate that the world will see ice-free summers in the Arctic sometime between 2016 and 2030.
The loss of this ice is not an insignificant event. For one thing, sea ice in the region helps maintain global temperatures by reflecting sunlight back into space. Without it, the ocean absorbs the brunt of the sun’s rays and begins an accelerated warm-up on its own. The changes are already causing an extinction-level crisis for animals in the region, and may even affect ocean circulation currents that regulate global temperatures. In short, the melting of the Arctic is an ecological catastrophe.
Yet the nations surrounding the region don’t exactly see it this way. Instead of seeing a disaster, they see an opportunity.
With the right amount of attention, education and action, there is certainly time to stop the slide into imperial madness.
The opportunity is in the land beneath the sea and ice cover, which geologists long suspected contained valuable deposits of minerals and resources. In 2009, an exhaustive, four-year study commissioned by the U.S. Geological Survey revealed the extent of the treasures beneath the Arctic ice. The region is said to contain 30% of the world’s unexploited gas and 13% of unexploited oil, in addition to a trove of valuable mineral deposits like uranium, iron, zinc and lead. Theses resources are financially valuable, geopolitically strategic, and, quite suddenly, accessible for extraction.
The scramble for access began even before the full extent of the Arctic’s wealth was definitively known. Russia, which had been developing gas and oil deposits in its northern latitudes since the early days of the Soviet Union, made the first move in 2001 when it submitted a claim to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf (UNLCS), stating that certain parts of the Arctic seabed were an extension of the shelf on which Russia sat. The legal claim was made within the framework of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which allows for a nation to make extended territorial claims on its continental shelf ten years after signing the treaty (Russia signed backed in 1997).
The commission came back a year later and had decided to recommend “additional research.” Yet Russia was not content to sit and wait, keenly aware that other powers were staking their own claims. Riding a wave of international resurgence— led in no small part by the substantial wealth coming in from Russia’s existing oil reserves—the country sent submarines to the ocean floor to stake its claim. By this time, however, Russia was not alone.
Denmark, by way of its sovereignty over Greenland, filed a territorial claim to UNCLOS in 2004, followed by Norway in 2006. Canada has until the end of 2013 to formalize its own claims. The United States has been unable to make a formal claim, as Senate Republicans under both Presidents Bush and Obama have blocked passage of the UN treaty that governs the UNCLOS. But that may not matter.
As in earlier days of imperialism, territorial claims are made on a piece of paper but backed up with the barrel of a gun. Shortly after Russia planted its flag under the North Pole, Canada announced its intent to build military bases in the Arctic “to maintain its sovereignty over its northern region.” Canada’s concerns are two-fold: staving off territorial claims by other nations, as well as asserting its control over the newly opened sea-lanes linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (the melting ice having made the mythical Northwest Passage a reality.) The United States is determined to block Canadian claims over the sea routes and establish them as international waters, ensuring the world’s largest navy has unfettered access.
Not to be outdone, Russia announced plans for its own military bases “in remote areas of the Arctic Seas” and the development of a special unit of armed forces designed to protect its claims in the Arctic. Both Denmark and Norway have announced similar plans for increased military presence, including bases, special forces, and increased naval capabilities.
The U.S., while unable to file an official claim with the United Nations, is nevertheless proceeding with its own “Arctic Roadmap,” a three-pronged strategy developed by the military to protect U.S. interests in the region. Having already beefed up its submarine and naval presence, the Roadmap offers a five-year strategy for ensuring that the U.S. maintains strategic access to the region.
So should the world expect a war in the globe’s northern latitudes in the near future? The probable answer is no. Despite an increasing military presence by all of the Arctic powers, it’s not in the interest of any nation to let the situation lead to direct armed conflict. Instead what is unfolding is a strategic deployment of assets in order to bolster claims, scare off rivals and ultimately increase capabilities for natural resources extraction.
In 1944, the U.S. State Department called the Middle East’s resources “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”
This geopolitical mindset is what the melting of the Arctic means to the industrial economies that surround it: a new source for economic exploitation, meant to enrich nations and compliment their international strategic objectives. The irony is that the cost of such extraction undermines the stability of every nation on the globe.
How these events unfold will largely depend on citizens within each country. Left alone, the global powers will certainly exploit the mineral riches of the planet’s northern latitudes. But with the right amount of attention, education and action, there is certainly time to stop the slide into imperial madness.