Is Geopolitical Competition Over the Arctic Exaggerated?

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Slowly but surely, climate change is opening up the Arctic. Greenland's glaciers and ice fields are melting, sea ice around the North Pole is decreasing each year, and the huge permafrost areas of Russia and Canada are beginning to thaw. This has led to widespread speculation of a Great Game-style scramble for the region's abundant resources. Many studies, including those by the private sector and the U.S. Geological Survey, confirm that there are vast treasure-troves of oil, gas, and minerals in the Arctic. Yet, with the exception of iron ore in Greenland, these resources have not yet been exploited. In fact, despite rising temperatures, the impediments to extracting and transporting most resources from the Arctic will remain formidable for the foreseeable future.

One factor facing developers is that, despite global warming, the Arctic remains largely inhospitable, and there are innumerable obstacles to cashing in on its riches. Oil rigs require airstrips, roads, electricity generation, and pipelines; mining operations require port facilities and technology to withstand the bitterest winters; and all resource extraction requires a specialized labor force. For the private sector to develop any part of the Arctic, enormous investments of capital and labor would be necessary.

While there is a possibility that the Arctic seaways -- running through Canada and along the northern Russian coast -- will become open to transportation for most of the year, large container ships are unlikely to use these routes. The Arctic will remain a dangerous trade route for commercial shipping, and neither Canadian nor Russian authorities can offer much in the way of support and rescue facilities in the event of emergencies along their northern borders. The dangers are further evidenced by recent investments in traditional sea routes and facilities, such as the Panama Canal. By contrast, the port of Reykjavik in Iceland, which would be ideally positioned to serve as a future hub for northern sea routes, has seen no such investment.

In the long run, permafrost thawing may prove to be the greatest obstacle to Arctic developers. It has made the construction of roadways and airfields much more difficult, and in some cases has caused extractive projects to be abandoned. This process has already caused enormous problems in Russia, where large cities such as Yakutsk and several large river ports, pipelines, conventional hydro electricity plants, and even a nuclear power station lie in permafrost areas. Yakutsk in particular has seen severe damage to its infrastructure and the closure of a runway of its airport as a result of the land below melting.

Despite these continuing challenges to development, there is no question that, for better or worse, relations between the countries of the region are gradually changing. One view of the Arctic's future stability is that governance of the region is evolving peacefully and will likely continue to do so. An Arctic Council was established in 1996, building on the momentum of a 1987 speech by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev calling for the Arctic to be a "zone of peace." The Council, which includes not only the five Arctic Ocean countries - Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, and Norway - but also Finland, Iceland, and Sweden, has reached agreements that advance cooperation on oil spills and drilling disasters. Most geographical boundaries in the region have also now been agreed upon, with questions about the international status of the Canadian Northwest Passages marking the rare exception.

A second view is that growing nationalism over the Arctic and its resources, particularly in Canada and Russia, paints a far bleaker picture. The current Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has asserted Canada's rights in the region, with some critics labeling him a "purveyor of polar peril." Meanwhile, the Russians have made dramatic and provocative gestures, such as sending a submarine to the North Pole to plant a Russian flag on the seabed. With mutual suspicions on the rise, Russia, Canada, and Norway are all investing in maritime reconnaissance and long-range strike capabilities. And for the first time, Canada is building Arctic-capable offshore patrol vessels.

But despite such saber rattling, it is still premature to describe the competition over resources and northern sea routes as a race for the Arctic. There are encouraging signs of cooperation and wise, if limited, development of resources. However this is a region where isolated incidents can quickly turn nasty. Moreover climate change and permafrost thawing are already changing the game on the ground, and there is little reason to hope that any of these processes can be reversed in the near future. While there may be little real cause for competition over remote and costly Arctic resources, there is always the chance that the purveyors of polar peril might yet have their way in the end.

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