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.