Environment: As the ice melts

Updated February 07, 2016


As global warming intensifies climate change, the Arctic ice is melting rapidly giving rise to opportunities for navigation in all types of weather and exploitation of natural resources, particularly oil and gas. At the same time, one can visualise the outbreak of conflicts once the Arctic ice meltdown gets an impetus in the coming years.

The Arctic and the Antarctica are frozen pieces of land but are melting fast because of global warming and environmental degradation. Located in the North Pole, the Arctic Ocean proper is divided into two deep basins, the Canadian and the Eurasian, separated by the submerged Lomonsov Ridge, which runs from the Laptiev Sea to Ellesmere Island crossing the North Pole.

For centuries, the Arctic has remained a challenge for navigators but in the last 500 years, explorers have managed to go far north of the Arctic Ocean to find Eskimos living in ice. After being inaccessible for years, the Arctic has emerged as a competitive region. Since the end of the 19th century, the Arctic has seen significant economic activity and played an important military-strategic role in the 20th century global wars.

While exposing the natural wealth and economic potential of the Arctic region, climate change also thaws conflicts over exploitation rights and transportation routes

The second half of the 20th century brought rapid growth in economic activity and the population numbers in the North Pole. As pointed out by environmentalists, the Arctic climate is warming at a significantly faster rate than the rest of the globe. From the mid-20th century, the extent of summer sea ice fell by nearly 8pc per decade, with comparable declines in ice volume and thickness.

Excessive industrialisation, urbanisation and modernisation plus a lust for resources resulted in deforestation and the melting of glaciers. One wonders where the waters of the melting Arctic and Antarctic regions will go. Furthermore, the burning of forests to clear land and in wars also causes serious damage to global environment.

The four major issues which can transform the Arctic as a conflict zone are: first, the Russian assertion about the North Pole as its sphere of influence notwithstanding the assurance given by Moscow that it has no aggressive or expansionist designs in the Arctic region. Second, since the end of the Cold War, Russia has conducted combat exercises and revitalised its Soviet era military bases along its Arctic coast thus alarming other stakeholders of the Arctic region. Third, geologists hold the view that the Arctic region has 20pc of oil and 15pc of global gas reserves. The scramble for natural and mineral resources in the Arctic region may trigger conflict among big powers who want to exploit the melting of the Arctic ice for establishing their foothold on the roof of the world.

Finally, within the Arctic Council that comprises Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US, there exists friction as Canada and Denmark express their resentment over Moscow’s perceived ‘expansionist’ drive in the Arctic in the backdrop of its annexation of Crimea and support rendered to nationalist Russian groups in Eastern Ukraine.

Yet amidst signs of negative conflict, the Arctic can also be transformed as a model of cooperation because the littoral states can use the vast and enormous reservoir of mineral and marine resources for mutual benefit. The Arctic Council can play a pivotal role in forging areas of cooperation among the members for making use of the melting sea for navigation purposes. By working together, the Arctic Council members can prevent militarisation of the region and take steps to protect the environment and ecology of the North Pole.

Russian offshore oil rig. Climate change is making the Arctic more accessible to oil exploration
Russian offshore oil rig. Climate change is making the Arctic more accessible to oil exploration

Since Russia’s northern borders are the longest along the North Pole as compared to other Arctic countries, its strategic, security, economic and political interests in that region are quite obvious. The Russian foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin considers the Arctic region as a major challenge and an opportunity to reassert Moscow’s global role. The options for Russia to deal with emerging conflicts in the Arctic needs to be examined from two angles. First, to make sure that the Arctic is not dominated by the Western powers and second, Moscow controls the sea lanes which will be open for navigation as the shortest route from Europe to Asia after the melting of the Arctic ice by 2030.

One can also expect major stakeholders in the North Pole trying to interpret the UN Law of the Seas Convention of 1982 in order to reassert their claims over their territorial waters and continental shelf. How their efforts will yield positive results are yet to be seen. With these facts in mind, one can expect large-scale activities in the Arctic region ranging from establishing naval and military bases, exploitation of mineral resources, industrialisation and urbanisation in the vast coast which is still mostly frozen through the year but its melting pace is quite fast. Then, there are also non-Arctic countries like Japan, China, Germany and France with their strategic, economic and commercial interests growing because of the melting Arctic ice.

Global warming and the punctured ozone layer alarmed not only scientists but also those who termed earth as highly vulnerable to periodic earthquakes, cyclones and floods. The Arctic, as the roof of the world, posed a fundamental challenge for the 20th century. Therefore, as argued by James F. Collins, Ross A. Virginia, Kenneth S. Yalowitz, in their article ‘Hands Across The Melting Ice’ in the International New York Times (May 14, 2013), “with global warming rapidly melting the Arctic sea ice and glaciers making valuable stores of energy and minerals more accessible, voices of doom are warning of inevitable competition and potential conflict, a new ‘Great Game’ among the five Arctic coastal nations.” It means, with the melting of Arctic ice, the region, which for centuries remained out of human competition is now exposed to serious conflict thus jeopardising the use of enormous mineral, and marine resources.

Furthermore, in the news report ‘The Arctic Frozen conflict’, The Economist (London), on Dec 20, 2014, argued that “the melting of the summer sea ice has also opened up trade routes between the Arctic and Europe via the top of the world. Seventy-one cargo ships plied the north-east passage last summer up from 45 in 2012.” To what extent, the predictable melting of the North Pole will open opportunities for cooperation and areas of conflict will be determined on the basis of how the littoral states deal with such issues in the days to come and how the international and regional environmental organisations will respond to such issues.

A ship makes its way through the Arctic ice
A ship makes its way through the Arctic ice

While the gradual melting of Arctic will open opportunities for shorter sea routes from Europe to Asia bypassing the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, it will also expose the North Pole to the opening of a new ‘great game’. Christian Le Miere and Jeffrey Mazo in the book, Arctic Opening Insecurity And Opportunity published by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, London, examine the changing dynamics of the Arctic by arguing that “the changing Arctic should be viewed as a sphere of potential cooperation rather than one of competition. There are potential economic benefits from international exploitation of the Arctic, although the riches are not as great as often claimed. The current increasing military presence in the region can largely be explained as Russia is simply rejuvenating the decrepit Northern Fleet and Arctic littoral countries in an attempt to prevent the creation of a large ungoverned space.”

Nevertheless, with the melting of the Arctic sea, Russia will also benefit from the vast quantity of oil and gas reserves along with marine resources and its Arctic ports will earn enormous amount of money as a fee for navigation from foreign ships travelling to North and East Asia. With around 50pc of the Arctic coast controlled by Russia, Moscow is certainly emerging as a major player in the perceived new ‘great game’ in that almost frozen region.

It will be a gross exaggeration to subscribe to the notion that the North Pole will be another conflict zone in the years to come. While, in view of the disagreement between Russia on the one hand and other members of the Arctic Council namely Canada and Denmark on the other hand, the Arctic region may experience a low intensity conflict, one needs to be optimistic about making sure that the resources of the Arctic are used as an opportunity for cooperation and for human progress and development.

The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations and Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi.

Email: amoonis@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 7th, 2016