Tensions are rising among nations interested in exploiting the environmental resources. Global warming risks triggering a new Cold War among the ice floes.
The Arctic is once again the centre of a geopolitical standoff between Russia and the Unites States (and to a lesser extent Canada). The European Union is playing piggy in the middle and hasn’t taken sides. The situation is pretty similar to the Cold War in a climate that is literally – if not politically – heating up.
The ice is retreating and therefore interest in the polar ice caps is growing. In the upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, 2014 was one of the hottest years of the past century. In Norway alone the average temperature was 2.2 degrees warmer than in pre-industrial times.
Since 2010 the volume of sea ice has been below the average of the past 30 years. The shrinking ice cap has opened up an ocean that was for decades sealed off by the ice floes. It is as if an ice cover was removed, allowing for the passage of craft less specialised for the Arctic environment. New horizons for marine transport and new opportunities for the exploitation of fossil fuels have opened up.
According to some experts, this optimism towards the new northern frontier is misplaced. While it’s certainly true that the Shanghai-Rotterdam shipping route is 24% shorter than the current course, which runs through the Suez Canal, the Arctic is still the Arctic, even with less ice. The climate remains a limiting factor. Ships must still be equipped for extreme conditions and the distance between servicing ports is a problem in emergencies.
The passages are increasing, but they are still very few: in 2013, 71 cargo ships travelled the northeastern route. The same goes for oil exploration and extraction operations, which are increasing but are still rare. A breakdown or an accident in these waters involves complex operations, and experts say we are still some way from having the capacity and infrastructure to respond to distress calls.
Be that as it may, Russian state-owned oil companies Rosneft and Gazprom have invested around €2 billion in the new Zvezda shipyards in Bolshoy Kamen for the construction of new ships and oil rigs capable of withstanding the Arctic climes. Rosneft has further confirmed that in 2015 it will be exploring 1,017 kilometres (about 630 miles) of the Pechora Sea floor with the aim of setting up new drilling platforms. Although everything is under control for the time being, the East and West are sharpening their knives. Russia has reiterated that it will maintain a high level of military activity in the Arctic. Russian secret service agents have been carrying out exercises in Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and in the Nenets province, specially directed at protecting the oil drilling facilities.
The number of nuclear warheads in the Sea of Barents in 2014 reached levels that had not been seen since the Cold War. And Russia continues to build nuclear submarines to be deployed in Arctic waters.
The West is certainly not twiddling its thumbs either. The Norwegian Intelligence Services (NIS) recently christened a new spy vessel, the most advanced of its class, which should be operational by 2016. On the day of the christening, the head of the NIS spoke to the press about Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, which he feels is more aggressive and unpredictable than its predecessors.
In the meantime, in December 2013, Canada submitted various examples of scientific evidence to the UN, staking its territorial claim over sections of the Arctic Sea floor. These portions of the marine depths are being disputed with Denmark, Russia and Greenland. Canada and Denmark are even battling with Russia for the seabed under the North Pole in which Russia planted its flag in 2007.
The Arctic Ocean is not only the shortest trade route between the Far East and the West but also a military and strategic stepping stone for any (possible) operations against the United States. The Kola Peninsula, which most people probably couldn’t even locate on a map, is a vast Arctic region. This is where Russia stores most of its nuclear arsenal, ready for use in the event of a conflict with the US. The messages coming from the political community over these issues are mixed.
Strong-arm tactics are alternated with attempts to smooth things over. Speaking at a press conference, the Russian ambassador to Canada, Georgiy Mamedov, with reference to the tensions surrounding the Arctic, nevertheless confirmed that collaboration between circumpolar nations was a priority. “We are interested in the exploitation of resources in the Arctic and we can only do it together”, he said. “It’s very dangerous. Nobody can do it on his own”.
In other words, the Arctic is unsafe, expensive and fragile. In a study published in the journal Nature, two British scientists maintain that gas and oil extraction in the Arctic is “incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 °C”, which policy makers generally agree is the threshold temperature that marks the point of no return for dramatic changes to global climate. Wouldn’t common sense dictate leaving things as they are?
Better still, we could decide to recover the tonnes of radioactive waste that were dumped in the Kara Sea (and the surrounding area) during the 1970s and ’80s. In spite of an international agreement of 1972, the Soviet Union hid at least 14 reactors and 17,000 containers stuffed with radioactive waste on the Arctic Sea floor. Some of which are now beginning to rust.