Arctic ice is melting faster than ever expected, leading oil companies and northern countries to jockey for position to access newly accessible wealth unlocked by global warming. In 2011, secret cables released by Wikileaks warned that resource wars would become more likely as global warming melts polar ice -- and opens new areas to oil exploitation. Will threats of military action and naval blockages next spread to the waters of the Arctic?
"The technologies required for Arctic exploration are almost exclusively in the hands of western oil companies " -- Christian Le Miere, International Institute for Strategic Studies
Melting Arctic Heats Up Resource Scramble Chris Arsenault / Al Jazeera
(September 20, 2012) -- Arctic ice is melting faster than ever expected, according to new data, leading oil companies and northern countries to jockey for position to access newly accessible wealth unlocked by global warming.
Arctic sea ice has shrunk to its smallest level ever recorded, the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) in the US said in a press release issued on Wednesday. "We are now in uncharted territory," NSIDC director Mark Serreze said in a release. “While we’ve long known that as the planet warms up, changes would be seen first and be most pronounced in the Arctic, few of us were prepared for how rapidly the changes would actually occur.”
In the 1970s a typical summer would see ice covering around 8 million square kilometres. But on Wednesday,ice coverage fell to 3.41 million square kilometres, the lowest summer minimum on the satellite record, the NSIDC reported.
For industry this is a blessing, as the thawing region contains an estimated 22 per cent of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbons, according to the US energy information administration.
“The economics of the Arctic are going to be the driving force of how the region is shaped for years to come,” Heather Conley, an Arctic expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Al Jazeera. “Platinum, oil and gas, and rare earth minerals are shaping how the Arctic will develop.”
Environmentalists, meanwhile, are terrified about the prospect of run-away climate change fuelled by the same carbon-based energy sources which caused the ice to melt in the first place.
“What we are seeing in the Arctic is the single greatest sign of climate change on our planet,” Rod Downie, programme manager with the environmental group WWF-UK, told Al Jazeera. “We are not surprised to see a downward trend in Arctic ice. But I think we are surprised at the severity of it, how early we have seen the records breaking and by how much they are falling.”
In the past four years energy giant Shell alone has spent more than $4.5bn trying to develop offshore fields near Alaska’s sometimes frozen coast.
Peter Wadhams, an expert on Arctic ice at Cambridge University, predicts the waters of the far north could be ice-free during summers by 2016. Warming water could melt the permafrost in other parts of the Arctic, releasing trapped methane and other powerful greenhouse gases, creating what some scientists call a “feedback loop” where global warming melts ice, releasing gases, further increasing global warming.
“Global warming is opening the Arctic to these new sources of oil and gas, that’s the irony,” Downie said. He believes 80 per cent of the fossil fuels that have already been discovered should stay in the ground in order to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees, a scientific threshold for runway climate change. “Going after new high-risk sources of fossil fuels in the Arctic is absurd,” he said.
There is nothing new about industry and environmentalists coming down on opposite sides of an issue. But the situation is more complicated when it comes to nation states.
“This rapidly transforming Arctic means coastal states have new borders [due to melting ice] they have to pay attention to,” Conley said. “In the past two or three years, coastal states have had to reposition their security forces to be able to protect those borders.”
Laws of the Sea
The likelihood of outright conflict over Arctic resources is quite low, experts told Al Jazeera, because operating in northern environments is militarily difficult, and governance institutions are reasonably strong.
The Arctic Council, a body established in 1996 to discuss environmental and policy issues, includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the US. Some NGOs, including the World Wildlife Fund, have permanent observer status on the Council. China wants permanent observer status on the council, but it has yet to be granted.
Along with unlocking new resources, melting ice of the Arctic could open up profitable sea routes.
"China has a great interest in northern sea routes being opened for trade,” Christian Le Miere, a maritime security expert in London, told Al Jazeera. “It has built a second nuclear icebreaker, which shows it is looking at Arctic transit and has been making a diplomatic push on Iceland, which it sees as a potential transport hub.”
The 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, ratified by all Arctic countries except the US, is the international framework for resolving competing resource claims in the region.
Under maritime law, countries can assert sovereignty up to 200 miles from their coast line. Article 76 of the UN convention allows states to extend control if they can prove their continental shelves – underwater geological formations - extend further than 200 miles. So far, the battle for unclaimed land has focused more on geological charts, rather than nuclear submarines.
“Countries are competing in a co-operative way,” Kristofer Bergh, an analyst at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden, told Al Jazeera. Scientists working for various states are often working together to gather data in the difficult research climate, he said, citing these partnerships as evidence that conflict is unlikely.
A Difficult Balance
Despite some collaboration, there are obvious tensions. Countries, “Russia and Canada especially”, are using nationalist rhetoric in the far north, but that is likely linked to politicians who want to look tough for domestic audiences, maritime analyst Le Miere said. There are, however, clear moves for states to assert their presence in areas where they previously paid scant attention.
“There are some increases in military capacity” but mostly in patrolling and surveillance, Bergh said. Northern countries are trying to create a “new security state” to manage warming territory, he said adding that the “increase to project power outside of national territory is quite limited”.
One potential flash point could be the Lomonosov ridge, a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range with potential resource riches, claimed by Canada, Russia and Denmark.
Russia, which sent a team of divers to plant its flag 4,000 meters below sea level under the North Pole in 2007, is particularly keen for northern hydrocarbon riches, as its economy and global standing are based largely on oil wealth.
“The technologies required for Arctic exploration are almost exclusively in the hands of western oil companies,” Le Miere said, meaning Russian firms will require western partners.
Past commercial extraction agreements in the far north have often been messy. The BP-TNK partnership between the British energy giant and a consortium of Russian oligarchs, for example, has been fraught with bitter disputes.
“It will be difficult to balance the desire for economic gains with strong environmental stewardship,” Conley said. If one adds in competing claims from rival states and rising sea levels due to melting ice, things in the Arctic are likely to heat up, just like global temperatures.
Chasing Ice National Geographic photographer James Balog has been photographing the world's glaciers before they disappear forever. His work is featured in the forthcoming film, "Chasing Ice."
(21 May 2011) -- It is considered the final frontier for oil and gas exploitation, and secret US embassy cables published by WikiLeaks confirm that nations are battling to "carve up" the Arctic's vast resources.
"The twenty-first century will see a fight for resources," Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin was quoted as saying in a 2010 cable. "Russia should not be defeated in this fight."
Along with exposing an estimated 22 per cent of the world's oil, ice melting due to global warming will open new shipping lanes, the arteries of global commerce, which nations are competing to control. And Russia certainly is not the only country eyeing the frozen prize.
Per Stig Moller, then Danish foreign minister, mused in a 2009 cable that "new shipping routes and natural resource discoveries would eventually place the region at the centre of world politics".
Canada, the US, Russia, Norway, Denmark, and perhaps even China, have competing claims to the Arctic, a region about the size of Africa, comprising some six per cent of the Earth's surface.
"The WikiLeaks cables show us realpolitik in its rarest form," says Paul Wapner, director of the global environmental politics programme at American University in Washington. "Diplomats continue to think of this as a zero sum world. When they see exploitable resources, all things being equal, they are going to approach them through a competitive nation state system."
The cables come to light at a time when academics and activists fear resource scarcity, particularly over dwindling oil and drinking water supplies, could lead to new international conflicts.
Sir David King, the UK government's former chief scientific adviser, called the invasion of Iraq "the first of [this century's] resource wars", warning that "powerful nations will secure resources for their own people at the expense of others".
In 2007, Russia planted its flag 4,000 metres below the Arctic Ocean, in an attempt to claim that its continental shelf, the geological formation by which claims are measured, extends far into the frozen zone.
"Behind Russia's policy are two potential benefits accruing from global warming, the prospect for an [even seasonally] ice-free shipping route from Europe to Asia, and the estimated oil and gas wealth hidden beneath the Arctic sea floor," noted a 2009 cable articulating US beliefs.
Presently, the Russians are far ahead of the US and other Arctic countries to take advantage of what will happen offshore, says Bruce Forbes, a research professor at the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland in Finland. "The cables confirm what we as scientists already know; [global warming means] the Arctic is not just this hinterland, as it is portrayed in the mainstream media."
In its 2010 Quadrennial Defence Review report, the Pentagon stated: "Climate change and energy are two issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment."
If humans do not drastically reduce their fossil fuel consumption, and current trends continue, the world is heading for a significant temperature increase, melting polar ice caps and causing sea levels to rise between 0.9 and 1.6 meters this century, according to a study from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme released in early May.
The idea that global warming will melt polar icecaps and allow for new petroleum exploitation in the far north represents a terrible irony, says Andrea Harden-Donahue, a researcher with the Council of Canadians, a social justice organisation.
"Climate change is making these resources easier to exploit, while burning these resources will only contribute to more climate change," she says.
"In Canada, we have seen a number of well-known actors, including BP and Chevron, exploring for oil and gas in the Beaufort Sea. In the US, Shell is consistently trying to get access to resources off the coast of Alaska; BP hopes to develop off the coast of Russia and Cairn energy have already been awarded licenses in Greenland and they are likely to start [drilling] this year.
"If [these companies] are allowed to move forward, I don't think it is unreasonable that we would see a scramble for these resources."
A 2008 cable quotes Russian Navy head Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky as saying: "While in the Arctic there is peace and stability, however, one cannot exclude that in the future there will be a redistribution of power, up to armed intervention."
But verbose rhetoric about conflict could be linked to politicians who want to support the military-industrial complex and boost their own stature, rather than actual fears of impending violence, cables suggest.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere is referred to in a 2009 cable, describing "how, during his March 2009 visit to Moscow, he thanked [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov for making it so much easier for him to justify the Joint Strike Fighter purchase to the Norwegian public, given Russia's regular military flights up and down Norway's coast".
The programme to develop the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is expected to cost the US and its allies more than $380 billion, meaning it is likely the most expensive military project in history - and politicians seem to feel the need to justify such a massive outlay of resources to sceptical electorates.
Canadian politicians, including recently re-elected Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, are also capitalising on fears of northern conflict to buttress narrow partisan agendas.
Harper has made several high profile visits to the far north, boasting that: "From Afghanistan to the Arctic, from the coast of Somalia to the shores of Nootka Sound [on Vancouver island] we will be able to see what the bad guys are up to," with new military satellites.
Commenting on Harper's rhetoric in a 2010 cable, US diplomats note that: "The persistent high public profile which this government has accorded 'Northern Issues' and the Arctic is, however, unprecedented and reflects the PM's views that 'the North has never been more important to our country' - although one could perhaps paraphrase to state 'the North has never been more important to our Party'."
While politicians pound their chests over resource claims, Prof Forbes says the risk of actual conflict is minimal, because there are international institutions and treaties governing competing claims.
The Arctic Council, composed of eight Arctic nations, is the main discussion forum for issues related to the far north and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the US has not signed, is supposed to govern resource claims in the region.
During a meeting of the Arctic Council held on May 12 in Greenland, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said that US ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention was "way overdue".
Clinton's desire to change US policy to sign the convention may have more to do with resource battles than respect for international institutions.
"If you stay out [of the convention]" then-Danish foreign minister Moller is quoted as saying in 2009 cables, "then the rest of us will have more to carve up in the Arctic".
The US position of not ratifying the convention means it cannot put forward a formal claim to the seabed directly north of Alaska, says Oran Young, a professor of environmental science at the University of California.
"If I knew why the US hasn't signed, I'd be happy," Young says, speculating that lobbyists for the mining industry and some senators who display "knee jerk negativism to the UN in general" were driving the decision.
In a 1987 speech, Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the former USSR, described the "threatening character" of NATO in the far north. Today, NATO's role in the Arctic is unclear.
"There is no reason for NATO to have a strong Arctic profile," says Timo Koivurova, a visiting professor specialising in northern issues at the University of New South Wales in Australia. "All the Arctic Ocean coastal states have behaved exactly as the Law of the Sea dictates."
But plenty of other people, from scholars to diplomats and military officials, do not entirely share Koivurova's optimistic view.
"The very best case scenario [for peace in the arctic] is that we move beyond fossil fuels," says American University's Paul Wapner. "The best case scenario is that we have cooperative institutions - with representatives of indigenous people - who use peaceful and cooperative means to ensure fair access to these resources.
"The doomsday would be competitive resource wars. As climate change gets worse, people will be pushed to get more resources to run their air conditioners and so forth. My prediction is that we are still going to be addicted to oil [when the main icecaps melt] and these resources are going to be extracted by the most powerful lot - which would include Russia, the US and China."
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