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The summer of 2010 saw the third-lowest amount and extent of Arctic sea ice ever recorded. For the third year in a row both the Northwest Passage between Greenland and Alaska and the Northern Sea Route between Norway and Kamchatka were ice-free - something that had not happened before 2008 in recorded history. As the physical state of the High North is changing, so too is the diplomatic environment.

The changing North
On 19 September 2010, sea ice covered 4.6 million km2 of the 14.1m km2 Arctic Ocean. This was 2.1m km2, or 31%, below the average summer minimum during the last two decades of the twentieth century. It was the third-lowest extent, after 2007 and 2008, since consistent records began. Eight of the ten lowest minimums have been experienced in the last ten years. Change is also visible in winter ice cover: the maximum extent in March 2010 was 4% below the 1979-2000 average of 15.8m km2, an area greater than the Arctic Ocean itself, since many areas outside the Arctic also freeze. The extent of ice cover is not the only story. The total volume of ice is also showing a downward trend, in both summer and winter. This is because the proportion of multi-year to newly formed ice is also declining. Since older ice tends to be thicker, this changing proportion means the total amount of summer ice in the Arctic is declining faster than the area it covers.

Some observers have taken comfort in the fact that ice extent increased year-on-year in both 2008 and 2009, with 2010 levels still above those of 2007 and 2008. But this was in part because the record low of 4.1m km2 in 2007 was an anomaly, falling well below the long-term trend. Other observers worried that the 2007 melt was a harbinger of disaster - that a tipping point had been passed and that accelerating warming might lead to a seasonally ice-free Arctic in as little as ten years. But the figures for 2010 closely reflect the long-term trend. Both the optimists and the pessimists appear to have been wrong.

However, this long-term trend is worse - in the context of global climate change - than projected even five years ago. Only the most extreme of the projections included in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) 2007 Assessment Report showed an ice-free Arctic by the end of the twenty-first century. Yet the trend with regard to actual observations falls outside the range projected by the IPCC models (see chart). A simple linear extrapolation of the current trend would imply some seasonally ice-free years in the Arctic by the 2040s, while an accelerating trend that better fits the data suggests a date of 2030. Recent model-based projections that take into account the latest data give dates ranging from around 2040 to 2080, with most expert opinion inclining towards the earlier end of the range.

Maritime activity in the Arctic is already on the rise. Since much of the ocean remains ice-infested in summer, even if technically ice-free, navigation is still difficult and perhaps dangerous. But it is easier and safer than it was even a decade ago. The thinner ice, even where it does not melt, means shipping escorted by icebreakers also has an easier time. As the trend towards less sea ice continues, year-to-year predictions of ice conditions will become more reliable, making commercial activity - not just shipping, but exploration for and extraction of putative energy and mineral resources - more attractive. It is this changing activity that gives rise to new military, diplomatic, legal and environmental concerns in the region - or reinvigorates old ones.

Legal and diplomatic landscape

International governance in the Arctic is dominated by a web of interlocking and overlapping bilateral and multilateral agreements and institutions, mostly dealing with narrow topics such as maritime safety and regulation, search and rescue, and environmental protection. Claims to 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and to continental shelves extending beyond 200nm are subject to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Norway and Russia have submitted claims to an extended continental shelf, Canada and Denmark have until 2013 to submit, while the United States has not ratified the convention and would have ten years after ratification to make a claim.

The Arctic Council, established in 1996, comprises the five Arctic littoral states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US - collectively, the A5) and the three other states - Finland, Iceland and Sweden - with Arctic territory. A number of other European states, as well as some international organisations and NGOs, have observer status. Security issues are explicitly excluded from its remit. In the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, the A5 asserted that the existing international legal framework provided a solid foundation sufficient for responsible management of Arctic issues, and that no new governance structure was needed.

Since all of the A5 states, with the exception of Russia, are members of NATO, there have been suggestions that the NATO-Russia Council could be the ideal forum for discussions of Arctic security. The foreign ministers of the A5 met in Chelsea, Canada, in March 2010, but little of substance was decided. There were concerns from non-A5 states, and even some of the A5, that this informal grouping excluded countries (and constituencies such as indigenous peoples) with strong stakes in the Arctic and undermined the Arctic Council.

All five Arctic littoral states have issued regional strategy documents in the last few years. All emphasise environmental protection and sustainability, scientific research, strengthening regional institutional arrangements and engagement of indigenous peoples, even where they include defence-related policies, sovereignty issues and territorial claims.

An important element of the US strategy, embodied in a 9 January 2009 Presidential Directive on Arctic Policy, was prompt ratification of UNCLOS by the US Senate to support a range of US national-security interests. The policy, although drafted by and issued in the closing days of the George W. Bush administration, reflects a broad bipartisan consensus. Both the Bill Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations supported ratification, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed during her Senate confirmation hearings in January 2009 that it should be a priority. But there remains strong opposition on the part of a number of Republican senators: the political dynamics are similar to those with regard to ratification of the New START nuclear-disarmament treaty with Russia, a top priority of Barack Obama's administration. This suggests that, whether or not New START is ratified by the end of the year, the chance of ratification of UNCLOS before the 2012 elections has declined significantly.

In both Russia and Canada, segments of the political community and media engage in rhetoric that may come across as nationalistic or even jingoistic. In December 2009 the Canadian House of Commons overwhelmingly passed a law officially renaming the Northwest Passage as 'The Canadian Northwest Passage', despite warnings from experts that this would actually weaken the country's case in international law. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as well as the defence and foreign ministers, have made statements about rising threats to Canadian security from other nations' activities in the Arctic and have taken part in photo opportunities with Canadian Arctic forces. Such gestures, however, amount to posturing for a domestic constituency, and are not reflected in policy.

In August 2010 Canada issued its principal Arctic strategy document, Statement on Canada's Arctic Foreign Policy, drawing on its earlier Northern Strategy. The exercise of sovereignty over the country's North is recognised as the most important foreign-policy priority. The search for new resources is identified as a potential threat not because of conflict over ownership but because it would lead to increased traffic, environmental threats, search-and-rescue emergencies, and illegal activity. The statement sets out a whole-of-government approach to the exercise of sovereignty, of which basing and operations of the armed forces, coast guard and Royal Canadian Mounted Police are just one part. Nevertheless Canada, like Russia, is making significant investments in this regard. Ottawa is, moreover, cooperating with the US on missile defence, and in August 2010 the US took part in Canada's annual Arctic naval exercise, Operation Nanook.

In September 2010, after 40 years of negotiation, Norway and Russia signed a treaty on Maritime Delimitation and Cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. It settles overlapping claims to some 175,000 km2 of continental shelf and 200nm EEZs, essentially splitting the difference between the claims. It also extends existing fisheries cooperation agreements, but replaces an interim 'grey zone' agreement of 1978. There are also detailed provisions for cooperative exploitation and management of oil and gas deposits that might extend across the boundary. Hydrocarbon exploration in the disputed area has been on hold for more than 20 years pending agreement on the delimitation line. The treaty does not come into force until it is ratified by both national parliaments. Observers expect this to happen soon, although the Duma has never ratified a similar maritime boundary agreement for the Arctic and Bering seas signed between the Soviet Union and the US in 1990.

The agreement is expected to put pressure on other Arctic nations to resolve outstanding territorial disputes - between Canada and Denmark, Canada and the US, and over the US-Russia boundary - so as to create a more stable framework for resource exploitation. Despite these outstanding disputes, and the unresolved and pending claims to extended EEZs under UNCLOS, the Arctic states are cooperating widely on exploration and scientific research. In summer 2010, for example, the US and Canada conducted a joint research project in the disputed area of the Beaufort Sea. In October 2010, a new Arctic Regional Hydrographic Commission was established by the A5, making it the last region of the globe to be covered by a regional commission under the aegis of the International Hydrographic Organisation.

There have been suggestions that NATO might play an increased role in the High North, but there is no agreement among member states, and the region was not mentioned in the new NATO Strategic Concept adopted in November 2010. Denmark is the only European Union member among the A5, and it is an Arctic state only by virtue of its responsibility for the foreign affairs and defence of Greenland, which otherwise has home rule and is not part of the EU. The other three members of the Arctic Council, however, are also current (Sweden and Finland) or candidate (Iceland) EU members, and the EU has been gradually developing an Arctic policy, with a 2008 Commission report and another due by June 2011. An EU application for observer status at the Arctic Council was turned down in 2009 because of an expected EU import ban on seal products, eventually imposed in August 2010. China, South Korea and Italy were also turned down. All four, plus Japan, will be reconsidered at an Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Nuuk, Greenland, in May 2011. The involvement of the three Asian nations is a reflection of their strategic interest in the potential opening of shipping lanes to Europe and North America through the Arctic.


All the Arctic nations continue to assert sovereignty and territorial claims in the region and to strengthen their military presence and capabilities. However, they remain committed to international law, institutions, governance and cooperation as the framework for the resolution of disputes and promotion of increased economic activity as the region becomes increasingly accessible. Rather than implying an Arctic arms race, resource gold rush or new 'cold war', military developments in the region appear to be of secondary importance compared with continuing cooperative efforts to deal with environmental, economic and energy security. They reflect prudent national steps to protect interests in the context of this framework, as well as the stability of the framework itself.