The brewing resource grab in the North Pole
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The Arctic and its South Pole counterpart, Antarctica, have traditionally been treated as a footnote in larger international relations.
In recent years, however, the polar caps have grabbed the attention of the international community. Climate change has hit the Arctic more widely than other regions. Average temperatures are rising twice as fast as elsewhere, and vast perennial ice sheets are melting.
Yet this threat to the environment has also given rise to economic opportunities for the world. These include alternative shipping routes and easier access to huge new oil, gas and mineral deposits beneath the seabed.
This emerging environmental reality has unleashed a commercially–driven run--akin to a land grab or new gold rush over the Arctic by five northernmost states, namely Russia, the US, Canada, Denmark and Norway.
In their bid to seek a redrawing of the map of the Arctic territory, the five countries risk rising tension and potential conflict, a development that would have an impact on international security.
A victim of climate change
The Arctic is "an ocean surrounded by land", with tundra and boreal forests found on the dispersed land masses dotting the ocean. Temperatures average around -17°C and a variety of species can be found there, including reindeers, caribous, bears and foxes with amphibious mammals in the waters. It is inhabited by 4 million people, including those who live on land belonging to Canada and Greenland.
The Arctic's shrinking snow cover--known as deglaciation--has led to several worrying developments. Among them is the torrent of fresh water that is being release into the ocean, seriously affecting sea levels and the ocean's density and salinity. The latter affects the ocean's circulation system and consequently, the world's climate.
It remains unclear what measurable impact this might have on Europe's (and the rest of the world's) climate and general weather conditions. Future scenarios range from substantial warming (coupled with severe droughts and extreme weather conditions), to severe "coolings".
Another consequence to the thawing of permafrost is that methane--trapped for centuries in deep ice–-is being released into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse gas effect. Among other things, flora and fauna will undergo significant changes. Unable to sustain themselves in the changing environment, they will be displaced and forced to migrate north or face extinction.
At the centre of a fraught race
Even as scientists and environmentalists worry about climate change, potentially-contentious issues are brewing.
The economic, political and legal race for the Arctic has begun among the five surrounding nations, which do not seem willing to adopt international counsel and instead preferring to assert their economic rights.
The European Union (EU) and United Nations (UN) have attempted to create a legal framework, similar to what is present in Antarctica where an intricate treaty--signed by 12 nations--bans any military activity in the region.
Antartica is open to all for research and scientific exploration, and the treaty essentially denies the right to lodge any new territorial claims, even though Russia and the US (as non-claimants) have said they are reserving rights to make future territorial claims.
However, in the Arctic, the five surrounding countries have rejected the creation of a new legal regime, arguing that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should remain as the basic applicable law.
UNCLOS governs the Arctic's continental shelf, seabed, the protection of the marine environment (including ice-covered areas), freedom of navigation, marine scientific research and other uses of the sea.
It awards the Arctic Five--since both zones are exclusive belts of economic activity--in seabed exploitation (ore, gas, oil, etc.) and exclusive fishing rights (marine biota).
The question is whether there should be an overarching legal framework co-signed by the five states to combat any potential territorial dispute.
There are a number of reasons for international interest in a legal system governing the Arctic. After all, the Arctic, like Antarctica, is a global climate stabiliser, retaining rich marine biota, hydrocarbons, minerals and tremendous fresh water reserves. Its resource potential is immense and could be utilised for absolute gains for the entire international community.
Yet those responsible for "resource management" continue their quest for more narrowly-defined self-interests and have used the lack of clear demarcation lines for increasing their national military and economic presence in a bid to secure their share of polar resources.
Even geographically-distant countries like China and Japan have expressed interest in Arctic affairs; interests primarily driven by increasing energy demands and alternative transportation routes.
In the near-term, it seems unlikely that there will be a comprehensive treaty in the Arctic. All five countries have lobbied for a bigger share of the seabed, which is believed to also hold 30 percent of the world's untapped gas resources, according to the US Geological Survey. Russia has also announced a plan to formally submit an application to the UN in hopes of redrawing the map of the Arctic, giving itself a bigger share of the resource-rich area.
Moving forward, there is no guarantee that relations will stay smooth among the five states. Their increased focus on national interests may raise tensions and endanger international security.
Professor Anis H Bajrektarevic is Chairman of International Law and Political Studies at the University of Applied Sciences IMC-Krems in Austria. This piece is an excerpt from the full version of the paper "The Melting Poles: Between Challenges and Opportunities" that was published in the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies, Vol. 5, Issue 1, March 2011.
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