Far north, in the frigid wastes of the Arctic, the ice is melting.
Day after day, month after month, year after year, the effects of climate change can clearly be seen in the Arctic region. Between 1900 and 2015, the average temperature in the Arctic has risen from -1.5°C to 1°C, endangering the habitats of native flora, fauna and indigenous peoples.
Yet in the eyes of the world’s nations, something far more valuable is at stake in the Arctic. Vast undiscovered reserves of oil and natural gas are predicted to lie underneath the Arctic Ocean, estimated to become ice-free by 2050. Arctic countries, world superpowers, oil and gas corporations and locals are currently locked in a struggle for these resources, with no clear resolution in sight.
Bitterly disputed territories, an ever-increasing military presence and the looming danger of potentially the most catastrophic oil spill in history – this is the Arctic of the twenty-first century. These fragile lands are under scrutiny like never before; No one can say whether this newfound interest will be their salvation, or their downfall.
Currently, eight nations are recognised as bordering or having territory within the Arctic region; Canada, Denmark (through Greenland), Iceland, Finland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States (through Alaska). These nations hold a permanent seat on the Arctic Council, the foremost body dealing with Arctic affairs. However, disagreements over territory are common and fiercely contested, ensuring “frosty” relations between neighbours.
Claiming a share of the Arctic Ocean is key to the future of many of the Arctic states. The potential rewards, such as large quantities of oil, natural gas, minerals and fish, are lucrative. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Arctic nations can claim a certain amount of offshore territory based on how far their underwater continental shelves extend. This means that they have full control over all economic activities on the seabed, drilling and fishing included.
However, these claims often overlap, often causing conflict between multiple nations. Hans Island has been disputed for over 30 years by Denmark and Canada, as well as the Lomonosov Ridge by Canada, Denmark and Russia. Yet it is not only the seabed that causes tension. In 2007, two Russian submarines travelled to the Arctic and planted a titanium Russian flag under the North Pole. This was a provocative move, as Russia symbolically sealed its claim on the reserves of the Arctic region.
It is inevitable that with tension comes growing militarisation, increasingly evident in the Arctic. Russia’s Northern Fleet, its largest and most powerful, is permanently stationed in Severomonsk – close to the Norwegian border. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), all five Arctic Circle states have begun to further develop their military capabilities in the region.
In 2013, Russia also conducted a large-scale military exercise in the Far East region. This “snap drill” mobilised more than 160,000 servicemen, 130 planes, 1000 tanks and 70 ships. In response, over 1,000 Canadian servicemen took part in Operation Nanook in August 2013, held in four locations in the Arctic, aiming to purposefully counter Russia’s territorial claims.
The stakes are getting higher in the region. In 2007, the Northwest Passage (a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean via the Arctic Circle) became navigable for the first time in history due to the melting of the permafrost. If the passage becomes ice-free during the summer months, nations will scramble to profit from this crucial cargo route between Europe and Asia.
Yet, what are the risks? For the delicate Arctic biodiversity, the stakes could not be higher. In freezing temperatures, oil is known to behave differently than in lower latitudes- slower to disperse and almost impossible to contain.
Due to the permafrost, only a small proportion of oil spilled in the Arctic could potentially be cleared. Drilling season is limited to the summer months, yet if a large oil spill occurs, it can take up to months to repair a leaking well. According to Greenpeace, if relief work carries into the winter and the wells become frozen over, oil can continue to gush out for up to 2 years.
The lack of infrastructure in the Arctic also has serious consequences in the case of an oil spill. Oil rigs are isolated and ill-equipped for a serious environmental disaster. The Russian Prirazlomnoye oil field, for example, lies 1,000km away from the nearest rescue team stationed on the Barents Sea coast. If an accident occurred, both the safety of the workers at Prirazlomnoye and the marine environment would be under serious threat.
Increased drilling in the Arctic also affects the local indigenous populations. The region is home to 4 million people, many of whom still practice traditional industries such as reindeer herding and fishing. A spill would devastate their way of life, even as they are forced from their lands to make way for oil pipelines.
One hundred years ago, it was Africa. Fifty years ago, it was the Moon. And now, the superpowers of the world have turned their attention to the Arctic.
In a world where oil is becoming an increasingly valuable commodity, those frozen wastes are already a bone of contention amongst many states, both within and outside the region. From the dangers of a major oil spill, to an increasing military presence and the destruction of a traditional way of life, who knows what the future holds for these delicate lands. They must be protected, managed and industrialised with the utmost care.
Our last frontier deserves that much.
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