Melting Arctic may redraw global geopolitical map

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This year's frenzy of oil and gas exploration in newly accessible Arctic waters could be a harbinger of even starker changes to come.

If, as many scientists predict, currently inaccessible sea lanes across the top of the world become navigable in the coming decades, they could redraw global trading routes – and geopolitics – forever.

This summer will see more human activity in the Arctic than ever, with oil giant Shell engaged in major exploration and an expected further rise in fishing, tourism and shipping.

But experts warn this carries a rising risk of environmental disaster, and criminal activities from illegal fishing to smuggling and terrorism.

“By bringing more human activity into the Arctic you bring both the good and the bad,” Lt Gen Walter Semianiw, the head of Canada Command, said last week. “You will see the change whether you wish to or not.”

With indigenous populations, researchers and military forces reporting the ice receding faster than many had expected, some estimates suggest the polar ice cap might disappear completely during the summer season as soon as 2040, perhaps much earlier.

That could slash the journey time from Europe to Chinese and Japanese ports by over a week, possibly taking traffic from the southern Suez Canal route. But with many of those key sea routes passing through already disputed waters believed to contain much of the world's untapped energy reserves, some fear a risk of confrontation.

Growing unease

There are fledging signs of growing cooperation – the first ever meeting of Arctic defense chiefs in Canada later this month, joint tabletop exercises on polar search and rescue operations organized through the Arctic Council. But growing unease is also clear.

Norway and Canada, for example, have spent recent years quietly re-equipping their military and moving troops and other forces to new or enlarged bases further north.

Having withdrawn most of its forces from the region in the aftermath of the Cold War, the US too is now said to be rediscovering the area’s significance.

Some US officers fear that Washington could lose its Arctic foothold to new rivals such as China. “We are in many ways an Arctic nation without an Arctic strategy,” the US Coast Guard Vice Admiral Brian Salerno said.

The US is yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which most countries use as the basis for discussing thorny Arctic territorial issues.

Territorial disputes

Arctic experts say there are at least nine separate territorial disputes and Russia in particular is thought keen to assert its presence in a ‘backyard’ resource-rich region, wherein it can hide its ballistic missile-carrying submarines.

Moscow also operates almost all of the world's 34 or so icebreakers – albeit many of them rusting vessels, some powered by nuclear reactors.

Norway and Russia have long had awkward relations over the Svalbard islands, broadly internationally agreed to be Norwegian but with a growing population of Russian émigrés.

Earlier this year, Oslo announced it was creating a specialist ‘Arctic battalion’, explicitly linked to a similar move by Russia's military just across their shared border.

In 2010, Iceland cited national security concerns for refusing to sell a large land plot to a Chinese businessman who bid to build a leisure project and golf course there.

In Greenland, an influx of contractors from – often Asian – investor countries is expected, after exploration and mineral extraction rights were granted recently.

But some experts say that if handled properly, this opening of the Arctic could benefit many of the region’s countries.

“I see the Arctic as ultimately more of a venue for cooperation than confrontation,” said Christian le Miere, senior fellow for maritime affairs at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.

However, the region’s vast distances, poor resources, and navigation barriers including icebergs and poor maps will continue to pose a threat.

“I don't worry about a war in the Arctic," the US Coast Guard, Captain Bert said. “But I do worry that we're not prepared to deal with a major disaster there. As more people go there, it becomes much more likely.”

The resource-rich Arctic is becoming increasingly contentious as climate change makes the region more navigable. 

The Northern Sea Route - a passage through the Arctic Ocean that follows the American coastline – is often navigable now. This shortens transport routes and increases trading possibilities. As the ice above Siberia is also melting, formerly frozen territories are now accessible, triggering sovereignty disputes in a resource-rich region. 

No country owns the North Pole or the region of the Arctic surrounding it. The surrounding Arctic states of the USA, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark (Greenland) have a 200 nautical mile economic zone around their coasts. 

In August 2007, a Russian icebreaker reached the North Pole and a Russian mini-submarine planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed there. The move was widely interpreted as a claim by Russia to the North Pole seabed and its resources. At the time, Vladimir Putin, then president of Russia, said climate change in the Arctic was not to his displeasure.

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