The Arctic is increasingly becoming the center of disputes as rising temperatures make ice melt. The region is believed to be rich in oil, natural gas, and deposits of gold and platinum. The Arctic seabed holds a significant proportion of the Earth's remaining untapped petroleum reserves, including around 15 percent of remaining oil and up to 30 percent of gas deposits. It also holds $1 trillion worth of minerals, such as nickel and zinc. The Arctic has 22% of the world’s undiscovered energy resources – and 84% of those resources are expected to occur offshore (so 18.5% of the undiscovered resources are on or under the Arctic seabed). Since 2005, $3.7 billion in commercial investments have been made in offshore leases, and the amount of exploration and investment in the region. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, an economic zone belonging to a state is limited to 200 nautical miles from the coastline. That area can only be extended if a country provides evidence that the continental shelf is a geological extension of its territory.
Circumpolar ship traffic is expected to have increased ten-fold this year over 2012. Experts now say the Arctic waters could see largely ice-free summers as early as 2030, and there could be ice-free conditions for as long as a month by the mid-2020s. Ice-free means that about 10 percent of the water is ice-covered. The dominant portion of these resources is hidden beneath ice that is disputed by the five nations bordering the Arctic (the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark). Last year, Arctic sea-ice melted down to the lowest level ever recorded. It has been thawing at greater rates year by year, creating a new shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific to open up new commercial sea routes and potential energy resources.
Here are some of the consequences of the Arctic's sea ice melting, according to U.S. Coast Guard:
- Shipping and transit increased by 118 percent through the Bering Strait from 2008 to 2012
- 1 million tourists now may visit the region in 2013
- 1 million tons of cargo were shipped in 2012 through the region
As nations take advantage of the new trade opportunity, they are also increasing their military presence in the area.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the Northern Sea Route (NSR) could one day rival the Suez Canal in terms of ship traffic. Compared to the current routes via the Panama and Suez Canals, commercial shipping transits from the Pacific to the Atlantic through the Northwest Passage could save two weeks of travel time. In its turn it translates into lower fuel costs, less ship steaming time and a reduction in labor costs for the commercial shipping industry. Traffic in the Northern Sea Route is reportedly expected to increase tenfold this year compared to last year. Moscow insists on maintaining the internal status of the NSR and recognition of the part of the continental shelf of the Arctic Ocean as its territory according to the evidence provided to the UN. Russia considers the narrowest parts of the Northern Sea Route to be its internal waters. According to Russian President Putin the Northern Sea Route is on the list of Russia’s development priorities. The USA does not recognize the claims and seeks to internationalize the area. The Lomonosov Bridge is the main object of territorial dispute between Russia and another NATO country - Canada. It stretches 1800 km from the New Siberian Islands cross the Arctic Ocean to the Canadian Ellesmere Island. Canada has already conducted military exercises in the area. Right now it’s clear the Murmansk Treaty between Russia and Norway is not exactly up to expectations. A series of incidents in the Barents Sea have proved that Norwegians push Russian fishermen away from Spitsbergen. Norway does not recognize the Russia’s rights over the NSR. Norwegian experts argue that the priority in the development of the Route belongs to the expeditions of the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen in the 1890s. Finland and Sweden have serious claims against Russia. Defeated in the Winter War (1939–1940) against the Soviet Union, Finland lost an exit to the Arctic Ocean. Sweden challenges the status of the NSR as a national heritage of Russia. Stockholm argues that the first Route was passed by the Swedish expedition of Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld in 1878. A common Scandinavian policy on the NSR is emerging. A certain pattern is taking shape with NATO and closely allied non-member Scandinavian states opposing Russia.
Speaking at an international security forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia on November 22 US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the release of the Pentagon’s first «Arctic Strategy» defining the US policy in the region as the United States launches preparations to take over the rotating chairmanship of a key regional governance forum known as the Arctic Council. This position, slated to begin in 2015-2017, will offer Washington a unique new leadership role on Arctic issues… Canada currently occupies that role.
Hagel said the American military was revising its long-term plans to adjust to the warming climate in the polar region. The strategy could see a greater investment in cold-weather training for personnel and the acquisition of equipment designed to withstand harsh Arctic conditions. The document places a priority on preparations to detect, deter, prevent and defeat threats to the United States even as the nation «will continue to exercise U.S. sovereignty in and around Alaska», Mr. Hagel said. It calls for working with «private and public sector partners», including the State of Alaska and federal agencies such as the Coast Guard, he added, «to improve our understanding and awareness of the Arctic environment so that we can operate safely and effectively». The military seeks to preserve freedom of the seas throughout the Arctic region. A new focus on the Arctic will require the Pentagon to reshape its infrastructure and capabilities in the region. «We are beginning to think about and plan for how our naval fleet and other capabilities and assets will need to adapt to the evolving shifts and requirements in the region», the Defense Secretary said. According to the New York Times, the United States has about 27,000 military personnel from active-duty units, the National Guard and reserves stationed in the Arctic, in Alaska. C-130 transport planes equipped with skis for landing and takeoff are deployed there, and nuclear submarines routinely patrol the polar region.
Mr. Hagel outlined the eight lines of effort the strategy lists:
- Remain prepared to detect, deter, prevent and defeat threats to the United States, and continue to exercise U.S. sovereignty in and around Alaska.
- Work with both private and public-sector partners, including the state of Alaska and Federal agencies, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, to improve understanding and awareness of the Arctic environment «so that we can operate safely and effectively». The Arctic, he said, «is the first new frontier of nautical exploration… since the days of Ericsson, Columbus, and Magellan, and it provides a clear opportunity to work together… to ensure we have accurate observations, maps, and models of the Arctic’s atmospheric, oceanic, and sea ice conditions».
- Help preserve freedom of the seas throughout the region, within existing frameworks of international law.
- Carefully evolve U.S. Arctic infrastructure and capabilities at a pace consistent with changing conditions. To that end, the DoD will continually re-evaluate its needs as activities in the Arctic increase, Hagel said, «as we balance potential Arctic investments with other national security priorities».
- Comply with existing agreements with allies and partners, while also pursuing new avenues of cooperation. «By taking advantage of multilateral training opportunities with partners in the region, we will enhance our cold-weather operational experience, and strengthen our military-to-military ties with other Arctic nations», he said. «This includes Russia, with whom the United States and Canada share common interests in the Arctic, creating the opportunity to pursue practical cooperation between our militaries and promote greater transparency».
- Be prepared to help respond to man-made and natural disasters in the region. «Our support will extend not only to civil authorities in Alaska and around its coast, but also to cooperation with allies and partners through humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations», Hagel said.
- Work with other agencies and nations, as well as Alaska natives, to protect the environmental integrity of the Arctic. «DoD will use existing capabilities to help address safety-related challenges, including international search-and-rescue missions as well as incident and disaster response», the Secretary said. «We will work closely with our Canadian partners on emergency response operations that help save lives».
- Finally, «We will support the development of the Arctic Council and other international institutions that promote regional cooperation and the rule of law».
The DoD will work with the Department of State in new initiatives like the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable and the recent meetings of the Northern Chiefs of Defense, The Secretary said. He added that such engagements «will help strengthen multilateral security cooperation throughout the region, which will ultimately help reduce the risk of conflict». There are no cost or budget estimates yet. But by the end of this year, the Navy will complete plans that lay out what the U.S. needs to do to increase communications, harden ships and negotiate international agreements so that nations will be able to track traffic in the Arctic and conduct search-and-rescue missions.
I believe it is expedient to make some remarks at this point. The US refuses to join international law and sign United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 (UNCLOS). Influential political forces want it to operate in a unilateral rather than cooperative manner when it comes to disputed regions. The idea of UNCLOS ratification is supported by the administration but meets rebuff from neocons strong enough to leave a slim chance for the two thirds approval in the Senate. The US ignores the idea put forward by national and international experts to collaborate with Russia while holding regular search and rescue Operation Arctic Light. The proposal to discuss the issue of forming the Multinational Arctic Task Force (MNATF) including Russia has never been responded to.
(to be continued)