Cold War in the Arctic? Countries Seek Piece of Pie

As it stands, Arctic policy is already a dense network of legal and political agreements between different national and supranational stakeholders. Now the European Union wants to play a greater role in shaping it.

By Gerd Braune

Changes in the Arctic could have worldwide consequences.

Changes in the Arctic could have worldwide consequences.

In November 2008, the EU Commission published a report entitled "The European Union and the Arctic Region," which was submitted as a "communication" to the European Parliament and the Council. This "communication" is seen as the first step in the development of a systematic EU Arctic policy that addresses not only the greater potential for economic utilization resulting from climate change but also the threat to the Arctic environment posed by both climate change and human encroachment. Moreover, with this document the European Union has shifted Arctic policy beyond the inner circle of polar powers and made it an international issue.

There is very little if any awareness among many Europeans that the European Union includes Arctic territory. To some extent this is due to the fact that the term "Arctic" needs to be more precisely defined. While it is generally accepted that the Arctic is not confined to the geographic North Pole, definitions vary of how far the Arctic region actually extends. On Canadian maps the North Circumpolar Region includes Churchill -- population 963 and polar-bear capital of the world -- and the southern shores of Hudson Bay. However, Churchill lies to the south of the 60th parallel. In European terms, this would mean that Scotland is an Arctic region. Demarcations of the Arctic in terms of climatic and plant-geographical factors, such as temperature and timber line, are also open to interpretation.

A less contentious definition of the Arctic is that area above the Arctic Circle, which is located at latitude 66.55 degrees north. This is the definition adopted by the EU Commission: in geographical terms the "Arctic region" is the area around the North Pole to the north of the Arctic Circle. This makes the European Union an Arctic stakeholder. Apart from the Arctic Ocean and a number of its seas, the Arctic includes territory of eight different countries: the three EU members Denmark (Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, and Sweden, as well as Iceland, Norway, Russia, Canada, and the United States (Alaska). Admittedly, the European Union does not directly abut the Arctic Ocean since the entire Scandinavian Arctic coast is Norwegian territory and Greenland, although it belongs to Denmark, is not integrated in the European Union. However, in terms of climate and plant geography, and location within the Arctic Circle, the north of the European Union can be regarded as part of the Arctic.

The Commission thus did well to emphasize that the European Union is "inextricably linked" to the Arctic region through a combination of history, geography, economy, and scientific achievements. Furthermore, it argues that this link is not confined to its three Arctic states. Norway and Iceland are members of the European Economic Area. Russia, together with Norway and Iceland, is an EU partner in the Northern Dimension Policy, a project launched in 2005-2006 to strengthen cooperation in northern Europe. In addition, the European Union is linked to the United States and Canada by the transatlantic partnership and NATO.

Melting Away

For centuries the Arctic attracted adventurers, explorers, and traders. This inhospitable region offered the prospect of profits from furs, fishing and whaling, gold, and raw materials. Above all, it drew those in search of the legendary Northwest Passage through the archipelago that today belongs to Canada and the Northeast Passage around the North Cape and along the coast of Siberia.

Economic interests and shipping routes are also key to the current focus on the Arctic. The ice sheet in the Arctic Ocean is shrinking as a result of climate change. At the Arctic Change 2008 conference held in Quebec in December 2008, scientists and Inuit inhabitants reported on the dramatic changes taking place in the Arctic. According to Christian Haas from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremen, who is currently teaching at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the reduction in Arctic sea ice coverage from an average of seven million square kilometers between 1979 and 2000 to just over four million square kilometers is only one factor in the equation. There has also been a significant reduction in ice thickness, which could conceivably lead to the complete disappearance of Arctic Ocean ice during the summer thaw.

Between 1903 and 1906 Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage and in the process spent two winters trapped in the Arctic ice. Over the last two summers both the Northwest and the Northeast passages have been open to shipping for the first time. Taking ships through northern Canada's network of islands instead of through the Panama Canal would cut 8000 kilometers off the journey from Europe to Asia and represent considerable savings in terms of fuel and time.

There is also increased interest in the potential extraction of raw materials from the Arctic Ocean floor. Since the end of the 1970s, the Prudhoe Bay oil field on Alaska's North Slope has been the largest field in North America, producing 15 billion barrels of crude oil. The latest assessment by the US Geological Survey indicates that the Arctic probably contains 90 billion barrels of oil and almost 50 trillion cubic meters of natural gas that have not yet been discovered and could be extracted using existing technology. These reserves are located predominantly in offshore coastal areas, with smaller amounts also found on land. Moreover, it is thought that permafrost areas in northern Alaska and the coastal seabed of the Arctic Ocean contain enormous quantities of gas hydrates consisting of ice and methane that could provide a future source of natural gas. Significant deposits of minerals such as diamonds, gold, zinc, nickel, and molybednum have also been found.

Disputed Ocean Floor

This information has been around for a long time and is based on verifiable data or conclusions drawn from comparative research into geological formations. In particular, the countries bordering the Arctic Ocean -- Canada, Russia, Denmark/Greenland, the United States, and Norway -- have been gathering information for years in order to validate their claims to the resource-rich seabed. Nevertheless, for a long time the Arctic remained a remote issue for policymakers and the general public.

This changed in the summer of 2007. On August 2, Russian submersibles dropped a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag onto the seafloor at the North Pole at a depth of 4261 meters. This spectacular piece of symbolism transformed the question of sovereign rights in the Arctic region, which until then had been the sole preserve of scientists and legal experts, into an urgent political issue. Headlines suddenly appeared referring to a new Cold War in the Arctic, a race for sovereign rights, and even an arms buildup in the far north.

In the view of observers like Michael Byers, political scientist at the University of British Columbia, this is nonsense. As he sees it, the only race going on is a scientific one to accrue the data required to determine who will have jurisdiction over the ocean floor.

Legal Framework Requirements

The most significant international agreement for the current debate on jurisdiction and sovereign rights in the Arctic is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Often described as a "constitution for the oceans," the convention, which came into force in 1994, has now been ratified by 155 nations, including Germany. The United States is the only major industrial nation not to have signed the treaty.

The UNCLOS permits coastal states to establish an "exclusive economic zone" extending up to 200 nautical miles -- the so-called 200-mile-zone -- within which they exercise sovereign rights over both the waters and the seabed. However, this sovereign territory may be extended depending on how far the continental land mass extends out under the ocean. In such cases the outer boundaries of this so-called continental shelf must be precisely defined and documented.

Cut-off lines are determined by a number of factors, including the structure of the ocean floor, sediment thickness and ocean depth. Such definitions can be a matter of dispute, as in the case of the Lomonosov Ridge, a mountain range extending over 1500 kilometers under the Arctic Ocean. Determining whether this geological formation is part of the continental shelf of Russia, Canada, or Denmark/Greenland is crucial to deciding which country has sovereign rights over the seabed around the North Pole.


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