The Thawing Geopolitics of the Arctic

By: Albert Troszczynski

The frozen, barren ice caps of the Arctic inspire both awe for and fear of the natural world. While man has subdued and achieved mastery over most environments, the Arctic has remained virtually undisturbed both physically and politically. Aside from its role as a militarily strategic vantage point during the Cold War, the Arctic Circle has been nonexistent on the political stage. In fact, with limited exploration, little to no business ventures and an indigenous population numbering over 350,000, the Arctic area has something of a pristine aura to it (perhaps ironically, considering limited habitability, little to no greenery and temperatures that can drop below -50 degrees F). But this last stronghold of nature that has more or less gone untouched by the entrepreneurial world is about to broached. Global Warming is coming, and the White Walkers of capitalism are creeping in.


Last year the National Snow and Ice Data Center[1] reported that ice levels in the Arctic sea had reached historic lows, and this year is set to be the third lowest level ever recorded. Studies at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration[2] assert that the Earth will experience ice free summers by 2050, and possibly even as soon as the next two decades. With the ice receding, however, opportunities for profit are growing. Estimates of recoverable fossil fuels[3] north of the Arctic Circle total approximately 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas deposits, as well as vast quantities of mineral resources, including rare earth elements, iron ore, and nickel. Establishing sea routes through the Arctic also presents a huge economic boon as it effectively cuts travel time[4] between Europe and East Asia by over a week. Other industries such as tourism and commercial fishing likewise have immeasurable potential.


And the international community has begun to take note. Much like the caribou migrates to its summer pastures when the snows melt, so the hungry eyes of economic powerhouses migrate north towards the lush prospects as the polar ice caps thaw. Arctic states have begun positioning themselves as tensions over territorial claims and disputes over neutral waters inevitably arise. Norway, Canada and Russia, for example, have spent recent years quietly re-equipping their militaries and moving troops and other forces to new or enlarged bases further north. Iceland and Denmark have also made plays. In an attempt to establish a foothold in the forthcoming debates they have established a new, multilateral organization, dubbed the Arctic Circle. Open to representatives from the public, private and NGO sectors, this organization was created with the mission “to facilitate dialogue and build relationships to confront the Arctic's greatest challenges.” Even the U.S. who – since abandoning an Icelandic military base in 2006 – has not been a player in the region, has started gearing up by releasing an official white paper this past May on the National Strategy for the Arctic Region[5]. But regional states are not the only ones with growing interests. China recently sent out an exploratory research vessel this year and has been constructing new cargo ships for cross continental travel across the northern sea passages. The Arctic Council, the premier intergovernmental forum on the region, has also accepted China, along with India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, into its ranks as observer nations at its most recent ministerial conference in May. As Iceland’s President and Arctic Circle founder Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson notes, “there's a long queue of other players, starting with China, India, South Korea, Singapore, Germany and France and others, who want a piece of the action and want to sit at the table, and are coming with a basket of investment finance as well as other agenda.”[6]


Luckily there are established organizations, forums and rules, such as the Arctic Council, the Arctic Circle and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the Arctic Council has been active in passing legislation to coordinate search-and-rescue missions and oil spill responses. “The positive story is that it's not the Wild West. The positive story is that this is not a new Cold War. The positive story is that we already have a structure for cooperation in the region,” says Grímsson. Future tensions are nevertheless inevitable. The US remains opposed to signing UNCLOS, and the potential for destabilizing flows of foreign investments into Iceland and Greenland (which boast a population of only 57,000) is worrisome. What is most troubling, however, is the lack of a real discussion on climate change. Most public statements and documents reference only the need to “adapt” to future changes with little to no reference on stopping them in their tracks. The unfortunate reality is that the untapped economic potentials currently being exposed in the Arctic are too large to ignore. As the more powerful nations of the world begin to benefit from the thawing of the Arctic ice caps, I fear the issues of global warming and climate change may become more and more intractable. In the short to mid-term, however, look for the Arctic (and space) to develop into the next geopolitical focus point for the international, political community.

[1] "A Change of Pace." NSIDC Arctic News and Analysis RSS. National Snow and Ice Data Center

[2] "Arctic Nearly Free of Summer Sea Ice during First Half of 21st Century." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 12 Apr. 2013

[3] Brownfield, Michael E, et al. "An Estimate of Undiscovered Conventional Oil and Gas Resources of the World, 2012." US Geological Survey, Mar. 2012

[4] Apps, Peter. "Melting Arctic May Redraw Global Geopolitical Map." Reuters. N.p., 03 Apr. 2012

[5] "National Strategy for the Arctic Region." The White House, May 2013

[6] The Future of the Arctic: A Global Playing Field. By Olafur R. Grimsson and Scott G. Borgerson. Council on Foreign Relations, 16 Apr. 2013


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