Melting Arctic Ice May Usher in New Era of Geopolitical Conflict
Countries of the Far North are set to be the new players in the emerging Arctic frontier. The polar ice cap is melting at much faster rates than previously predicted, and may be completely ice free by the summer of 2040 or sooner. There are vast untapped resources in the Arctic Ocean such as new shipping lanes, fishing grounds, tourism, and it is believed to contain the largest of the world's remaining energy reserves. This year has brought about a frenzy of oil and gas exploration which will only increase as the ice recedes. The coming summer will bring an even more intense search for resources. Cooperation will be required among the northern nations to avert territorial disputes and conflicts at the top of the world.
Laurence C. Smith, Geology Professor at the University of California LA has written about what is occurring now in his book, The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future. The Arctic nations, which he refers to as NORCs include Russia, Canada, United States, Norway, Denmark (Greenland), and Iceland. In comparison to much of the world, these nations are demographically on the rise and are economically healthy for the most part. Their power is set to expand due to the four forces described in the book: demographic trends, natural resource demand, globalization, and climate change.
Smith explains that the instrument to ensure peaceful exploration and development in the Artic is already established in the form of a treaty. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is currently used to resolve maritime disputes and can be readily applied to the newly accessible Arctic waters. Most countries have ratified this treaty with the exception of the United States.
Russia, with its massive Arctic coastline is the big dog in this new geopolitical arena. It operates the most icebreakers in the world, is the most involved in exploration, and has symbolically planted a Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole. The other NORCs, not to be overwhelmed by the Russian presence, are scrambling to reassess and implement their Arctic strategies.
Canada, the Arctic power with the second largest coastline, is expanding its forces along its northern periphery at military and research bases.
The United States, having withdrawn much of its forces from Alaska after the Cold War, is replacing them as it rediscovers the region’s significance.
Norway, perhaps the most developed Arctic power thanks to its favorable climate, is also positioning more forces to the north and further developing its northern ports.
Greenland, long a territory of Denmark, is seriously contemplating independence as it realizes its strategic significance and potential boom in resources as the ice melts.
Iceland, located in a strategic position in the mid-Atlantic near the Arctic Circle, does not have much territorial claim to the Arctic, but is fiercely defending its sovereignty from foreign investment.
Territorial disputes do exist, such as Norway and Russia's awkward relations over the Svalbard Islands. On paper, they belong to Norway but contain a growing population of Russian immigrants. However, the advanced nations of the Far North are not likely going to be warring with each other in the Arctic.
There will likely be much more cooperation than conflict, considering the limitations within the region. There is still a lot of sea ice and will be for some time to come. There are icebergs to navigate around and vast distances to cover with few ports.
The greatest concern is for an environmental accident such as an oil spill to occur in the region, and there are no ships around to help contain it. Also, illegal activities are concern because there will be few ships in the region to monitor suspicious activity like illegal fishing or whaling. Unfortunately, as the human presence grows, so do the chances of these types of incidents to occur.
For more information: http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/UNCLOS-TOC.htm