Breaking the Ice: The Arctic Scramble

Discussions at the UN Climate Change Summit that convened this past September concerned the urgency of adapting to, combating, and ultimately solving this worsening crisis that will, among many other impacts, decimate island nations, ruin agricultural economies, and transform the environment as the modern world knows it.

However, while climate change poses a major threat to many nations, a different attitude to climate change has been rather overlooked by Nordic nations as well as Russia, which could stand to benefit from the melting of Arctic sea ice. Russia has gotten a head start; unlike the Nordic nations, it has prepared for the Arctic sea ice’s inevitable melting. At this point, given the inevitable prospect of continued shrinking of the Arctic landmass, it is in the best interest of the Nordic nations to start planning how they will manipulate the changing Arctic climate for their economic and political advantage.

It has been scientifically proven that melting in the Arctic region is due to man-made climate change, and there are no signs this melting will abate soon. The UN Environment Assembly published a report in early 2019 which concluded the Arctic has lost 40 percent of its ice since 1979. Much of this ice is within the territories of Norway, Greenland and Russia. Additionally, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report determined that the number of ice-free months will increase as the temperature continues to increase.

The contributors to much of this environmental degradation happen to be the nations with much to gain: Norway, Denmark, and Russia. For example, although Norway and its citizens champion its position as the ‘second most eco-friendly’ country in the world, it uses the area to extract petroleum and fish. The same applies to Denmark, as it gains from its Arctic constituent, Greenland, and Russia with petroleum and transportation connections there.

An estimated 22 percent of the world’s total oil and gas lies beneath the ice in the Arctic, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Plus, there are copious amounts of uncovered minerals, potential fisheries, and space for new transportation routes to be made.

Russia recognizes the potential in the Arctic and is beginning to heighten its forces and surveillance in the area. Since about 2017, Russia has been building up its fleet of forty-plus nuclear-powered icebreakers to use for shipping in the Arctic Northern Sea Route, while Norway’s fleet is composed of two icebreakers and Denmark’s is nonexistent. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has also started reviving many of its Cold War-era military bases around Siberia, giving off rather provocative messages to the rest of the world about Putin’s intentions in the region. This is certainly more explicit than any measures taken by the Nordic nations thus far.

A potential Russian takeover of the area looms as time progresses. Ignorance of Russian actions by the Nordic countries, instead of mimicry of Russian proactivity, could be detrimental to their futures, as it would result in an intense loss of economic and political potential. Access to even more of these resources, which could only occur if the ice were to melt and make entry available, could transform the Nordic economies and increase their dominance in their respective economic specialties instead of letting Russia solely benefit from these resources. Norway could expand their shipping fleet, the fourth largest in the world, even more by establishing new shipping lanes through the Arctic, an idea that China has referred to as “a new silk road.” Greenland would increase its value as a territory for sale, like American President Donald Trump suggested early this year, if it were to utilize its melted ice sheet and take advantage of the potential for fisheries in the region to increase their fish farming exports.

One complication is that the official distribution of this area is tenuous. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), nations can lay exclusive claim to waters up to 200 miles from their coastline, called Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), for economic purposes. They can also extend their claims, if their continental shelves stretch more than 200 miles into the Arctic Ocean, which these specific nations’ do. However, this agreement has been contested in the area for years, because the Arctic nations have pursued overlapping claims relating to their EEZs that have yet to be determined. There have been numerous attempts by Arctic nations, especially Norway and Russia, to agree on EEZs and their limits. For example, the Ilulissat Declaration was announced in 2008 by Arctic-bordering nations to uphold the idea of the Arctic as a peaceful zone without specific territories, but participants’ commitment to this declaration has faded. Specific events, such as in 2007 when Russia placed their national flag in an area of the Arctic that Denmark claims is a part of Greenland, expose this lack of commitment.

Though there are many options that Norway and Denmark could choose from to stake their claims in the Arctic, composing an agreement like the 1959 Antarctic Treaty may be one of the most successful and fair methods. Effective since 1961, the Antarctic Treaty regulates international relations on Antarctica and ensures that it is used solely for international scientific interests, not military or political interests. Its goal of peace and stability on the continent has been upheld rather successfully since its signing. A similar treaty that encourages fair Arctic transportation flow and scientific endeavors, especially those relating to climate change in the Arctic, would definitely be successful in maintaining peace but also encouraging stability –– as long as it also caters to and solves the long-lasting question of each country’s EEZ claims. If an agreement like this is not pursued soon, as climate change worsens daily and countries like Russia continue to infringe on the Arctic’s materials, it may be too late for the Nordic countries to have a fair and beneficial claim in the area; the ice will already be broken.

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