By Sun Woo Ryoo
AS the frigid Arctic shows signs of thawing, tensions reminiscent of the Cold War are building in the High North. In 2007, Russian submersibles dropped a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag on the North Pole seabed. In response, Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay stated, “This isn’t the fifteenth century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory.’ In August 2011, the Canadian military launched an exercise called Operation Nanook 11 which deployed over 1000 troops. Foreign forces from NATO also participated.
In that same year, Russia announced it would create two specialist brigades to be stationed in the Arctic. Such militarization of the Arctic had already occurred during the Cold War, but in a different manner and with different motives; because of its unyielding climate, the Arctic had served as a buffer zone between the Communist bloc and the Free World. While very few ground troops and naval units were deployed in the Arctic at that time, radar stations for detecting incoming ICBMs (most famously the series of radar stations that formed the Distant Early Warning Line “DEW Line”) were installed.
Arctic policy focused on deterrence of nuclear annihilation for many nations during the Cold War. Today, these countries consider the Arctic the final frontier of mankind, with great economic potential as a source of fossil fuels and mineral resources and as an alternative shipping route. However, the Arctic is a long way from development, and because of this, a NATO versus Russia confrontation in the Arctic is unlikely to occur. Furthermore, the Arctic will not remain the exclusive possession of circumpolar nations; challenges in developing the High North will ensure the participation of other nations.
What is most likely to emerge is a multilateral relationship among circumpolar states and other interested nations like the United Kingdom, France, China, Japan, and Germany.
A Potential Economic Bonanza
There is a reason why countries around the world, especially circumpolar nations, are showing great interest in the Arctic these days. The High North, if adequately developed, will entail immense economic value. The wealth of the Arctic lies in its fossil fuel deposits, yet-to-be-mined mineral resources, and potential as an alternative to the traditional shipping routes that pass through the Panama and Suez canals. The amount of crude oil and natural gas that remains untapped in the Arctic is enormous. According to the United States Geological Survey, approximately 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil are deposited in the Arctic Circle. This fact combined with the projection of continued high gas and oil prices in the future makes the Arctic a potential Gold Rush zone.
The mineral resource deposits of the Arctic also represent tremendous wealth. Its frozen landmass, especially the Kola Peninsula of the Russian Federation, contains vast amounts of inorganic riches including the world’s second largest deposit of rare earth metals, bested only by China. The Canadian North is the world’s third largest producer of naturally formed diamonds, and Alaska is the world’s largest producer of zinc. In addition, the Arctic as a whole contains vast amounts of copper, iron, nickel, cobalt, titanium, uranium, ceramic raw materials, mica, and precious stones. As with oil and gas, the price of industrial commodities is rising and will continue to do so in the future. The mineral deposits of the Arctic will be an economic bonanza for any country that can unearth it.
Finally, the shipping lanes that pass through the Arctic have received attention at least since the fifteenth century. There are two main shipping lanes in the Arctic: the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route. The Northwest Passage runs near the Canadian shoreline; the Northern Sea Route passes through Russian waters. These routes have seen limited use in the past because they were usually closed off by sea ice. Now, with the thawing of the Arctic, these routes could become much more navigable. These two sea lanes could potentially bring significant reductions in shipping costs for logistics corporations.
The Northwest Passage has the potential to cut 11,000 kilometers off the Europe-to-Asia route through the Panama Canal, and the Northern Sea Route could cut up to 12,920 kilometers off the Asia-to-Europe route through the Suez canal. With the rise in fuel prices, every bit of distance saved translates into profit. Because the High North has great economic potential in terms of untapped fuel, mineral deposits, and transport lanes, it is not strange that many nations, especially circumpolar countries, are fighting for legal rights in the Arctic. These battles focus on whether these routes are part of the internal waters of Canada or Russia, or are international straits
Cold Realities of Far North Development
However, prospects of imminent development of the Arctic are illusory at best. The current legal battle over ownership of Arctic waters is an “imaginary” issue, because the “real” problem of the Far North is that it will not be developed for a significant period of time. A major impediment to the development of the Arctic is sea ice. While sea ice in the Far North is receding at an accelerating rate, it will continue to impede the development of the Arctic for a substantial period of time.
Most models of Arctic sea ice melting estimate that the Arctic Ocean will not be free of sea ice until the 2030s. Until then, sea ice will continue to block Arctic development. Other issues exist, but their impact on the exploitation of the Far North can be classified into legal, technological, infrastructural, and economic obstacles, which cannot even begin to be addressed until the thawing of sea ice is complete and development well underway.
Mining: Fossil Fuels and Mineral Resources
Many legal issues trouble the mining of fossil fuels and mineral resources in the Arctic. In the Far North, fossil fuels are located on continental shelves and seabeds in the Arctic Ocean. Ongoing legal disputes between countries over territory in the High North arise from ambiguous knowledge of Arctic continental shelves. Current international legislation states that a country’s claim to resources outside its internal waters and EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones) must be supported by scientific proof that a particular underwater geographic feature is a continuation of its continental shelves. Circumpolar nations are sending scientific expeditions to support their claims.
The science has proven inconclusive so far; for example, Canada, Russia, and Denmark all have sent scientific expeditions to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of their respective continental shelves (most notably the Arktika 2007 expedition, during which Russian scientists dropped their flag on the North Pole seabed). A neutral expedition would be ideal, but is practically impossible in the near future: only nations with icebreakers can conduct scientific expeditions in the Arctic due to sea ice, and icebreakers mostly belong to circumpolar countries. Until disputes over territory have been settled, the High North will not be open for development.
Unlike fossil fuels, minerals in the Arctic are land-based. These resources are free from legal issues surrounding continental shelves, but are subject to territorial claims by native populations and environmental laws. Especially in North America, many places are still inhabited by native tribes, who have certain rights (i.e. hunting wildlife in their territory) over the land. Mineral mining is destructive and undermines the rights of these tribes. Destructive mining also violates environmental laws, especially those regarding protected species. A good example of both cases is the Arctic Refuge drilling controversy. Although this example involves oil, it is pertinent to mineral mining because it takes place on land. Native rights and environmental legislation concerning the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have so far barred drilling entirely, an outcome that will be repeated in many Artic lands.
Current technology precludes immediate Arctic mining. Drilling for fossil fuels in the Arctic requires mining over ice, because large areas of the Arctic freeze in winter. Currently two technologies exist for drilling over ice. The first method is used in the Caspian Sea, whose northern part freezes during the winter, and it involves constructing artificial islands. This method cannot be used in the Arctic because the northern Caspian sea is only fifteen feet deep, whereas the continental shelves and seabeds of the Arctic are several thousand feet underwater.
The second method uses submersible drilling platforms, which dive when sea ice forms. This technology is being tested in the North Sea. It is extremely expensive, however, and is not a practical solution in the near future for massive fossil fuel excavation in the Arctic. Until the High North becomes ice-free even in winter, or until a major technological breakthrough is made in submersible drilling platform technology, Arctic development will proceed slowly. Mineral mining faces technological challenges from Arctic thawing itself. When the ground thaws, it becomes hydrated. Drilling, which requires solid ground, becomes difficult. New drilling equipment is needed to mine minerals under these conditions. And for non-drilling technology (i.e. chemical methods), soil pollution proves a salient problem. Advances in drilling technology and/or chemical mining methods are needed for Arctic mineral exploitation.
The Arctic lacks infrastructure for supporting large-scale mining. Both fossil energy and mineral mining will require a great deal of labor. Safety apparatuses (including emergency rescue teams) and communities must be built near the drilling sites. Roads, railroads, and harbors will need to be created to transport the mining products to markets. The thawing of the permafrost presents additional disadvantages, as the infrastructure will need to withstand the malleable ground. This burden could fall on the government (as with the Soviet era closed cities) or on corporations (as with the company towns of North America). However, in the isolated and frigid Far North, this will prove to be a costly and protracted task.
The Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route traverse Canadian and Russian territorial waters, respectively. Until treaties are signed that designate the legal obligations and rights of the nations through which the shipping lanes pass and the vessels that pass through these routes, using the shipping lanes will be difficult. The routes can be vital strategic assets to the nations that possess them: the Northern Sea Route has occasionally been used by the Soviet Navy to link their Northern and Pacific fleets. Such strategic and military interests may prolong the negotiation process for these treaties. Until the legal boundaries are clarified, the lanes will not be a major absorber of world shipping traffic.
When the Arctic Ocean is free of ice all year round in the 2030s, sea ice will not be a problem, but until then, it will be a major prohibiting factor for the development of shipping lanes. Obviously it is not prudent to open the lanes when they are entirely encapsulated in sea ice, but they can be opened when coverage is only partial. In this case, ships that pass through the shipping lanes will need to have some icebreaking capability; vessels without such an ability risk the danger of being trapped or sunk. Escorting every ship through the sea routes with icebreakers is not economically viable. Either a new class of ships with basic icebreaking abilities will have to be built to take advantage of these lanes, or current ships will have to be retrofitted. Once again, this will require new technology, though such innovation may be easier to pull off than other challenges set out in this article.
If the Arctic sea routes are to function on a commercial scale, supporting infrastructure needs to be established. Important components of infrastructure include icebreaker fleets and vessel monitoring systems. Currently, the icebreaker fleets of the circumpolar nations are scant and outdated. Finland’s most powerful icebreakers, Urho and Sisu, are 35 years old. The US icebreaker fleet has three vessels, of which only one is modern. Such fleets will not be able to accommodate the heavy traffic of commercial sea routes. Vessel monitoring systems are necessary for all modern sea routes — no ship that travels along major shipping lanes should go without being monitored. However, these systems are very expensive, and many developing nations that need vessel monitoring systems go without simply because they cannot afford them. Enlarging and modernizing icebreaker fleets and constructing vessel monitoring systems in the Arctic will take substantial time and money, and will not be done in the near future.
The possibility of accidents in the Arctic will prevent vessels from entering the High North. While savings in transportation costs associated with using the Arctic sea routes are substantial, they pale in comparison to the losses incurred when a vessel is damaged at sea. Accidents will remain likely until all of the ice in the Arctic melts, mainly due to icebergs. The real possibility of accidents and the murky legal framework of the Arctic present a nightmare scenario for any entity considering the use of these shipping lanes. At present, such dangers far outweigh the benefits in shipping costs reductions, and until the legal responsibilities of the Arctic are clearly set out or the danger of icebergs are reduced, the shipping lanes of the Far North will not be fit for business.
Many Poles in the North?
The development of the Arctic will not occur anytime soon. Legal, technological, infrastructural, and economic factors all impede the exploitation of the Far North’s resources. Because Arctic development is not imminent, nations will view the High North from a more flexible security standpoint. The protracted development of the Arctic will also ensure that other nations have time to catch up.
Non-circumpolar nations that have lesser capability of exploiting the Arctic will be able to join in development since they will have enough time to develop their assets. Circumpolar nations will wish to accelerate the exploitation of the Arctic, and will outsource certain technological and infrastructural tasks to these non-circumpolar states. As a result, a multilateral relationship, as opposed to a bipolar NATO versus Russia type of conflict, will arise in the Arctic.
A Flexible Outlook on Security Interests
Because Arctic development is not happening anytime soon, circumpolar nations, the main players in the exploitation of the Far North, have far more space to maneuver in terms of security. Détente arose in the last century when states realized that the Cold War would go on for an indefinite period of time. Something similar may happen among the circumpolar nations, and signs are already showing that it will be the case.
Despite the solidarity shown in Operation Nanook, the United States and Canada have competing claims for continental shelf and seabed rights north of Alaska. Denmark has also broken out of the NATO monolith by pushing for the Chinese to obtain permanent observer status on the Arctic Council. The Danish intend to use China as a counterweight to other circumpolar countries, including the United States. The long-term security interests of the countries are not confined to a NATO versus Russia paradigm, and so far nations are acting with such pliability.
Non-Circumpolar Nations Play Catch-Up
Because the Far North will not be exploited anytime soon, non-circumpolar nations with significant interests in the Arctic can and will expand their capacity to develop the High North. Countries that are permanent and ad-hoc observers on the Arctic Council have a great interest in the Arctic, but some do not have the polar capabilities that circumpolar states enjoy.
For example, as an industrial power, Germany has interests in the fossil fuels of the Arctic. Its icebreaker fleet, however, is very small. Given that the Arctic will not be free of ice until at least the 2030s, and an icebreaker takes only 8 to 10 years to build, states like Germany will have time to build their fleets.
Outsourcing Arctic Development
The circumpolar states face a daunting task in exploiting the Arctic. Circumpolar countries can accelerate development of the Arctic by outsourcing certain work to non-circumpolar states. In 2011, the Korean Gas Corporation of South Korea bought 20% of the ownership of the Umiak SDL 131 gas field in the Mackenzie Valley Delta, and is considering building a terminal in Cape Bathurst. NATO is already engaged in dialogue with countries including China, Japan, South Korea, and India due to their great industrial potential. Such outsourcing will continue into the future, and will bring the presence of non-Arctic states to the Far North.
Despite current tensions and interests, the Arctic will remained closed for development for a significant period of time, unless the ice melts unexpectedly rapidly or there are a series of major economic and technological breakthroughs. Because of the time needed for exploitation of the Far North, Arctic states will have a more flexible viewpoint on High North security and will act relatively free of the NATO versus Russia conflict paradigm. Non-Arctic states without polar capabilities but interest in the High North will have time to develop their capacities. Outsourcing of technological and infrastructural tasks of Arctic development will invite non-circumpolar nations into Far North exploitation.
As a result, instead of an immediate bipolar confrontation reminiscent of the Cold War, a slowly evolving multipolar relationship amongst many nations will arise in the North Pole.
Sun Woo Ryoo is a freshman in Morse College