by Judith Curry
In the long run the unfrozen north could cause devastation. But, paradoxically, in the meantime no Arctic species will profit from it as much as the one causing it: humans. Disappearing sea ice may spell the end of the last Eskimo cultures, but hardly anyone lives in an igloo these days anyway. And the great melt is going to make a lot of people rich. – The Economist
Jay Gulledge of Pew Climate has an article entitled Climate Changes Impact on International Arctic Security. Excerpts:
Official military doctrine in the United States now holds that “climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked.” Nowhere is this linkage more clearly illustrated than in the Arctic, and that’s why we think the region is a bellwether for how climate change may reshape global geopolitics in the post-Cold War era.
New and expanded shipping routes through the Arctic can cut the distance to transport goods between Asia, North America, and Europe by up to 4000 miles. We’re seeing increased interest and investment in oil and gas exploration. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of undiscovered oil lies in the Arctic. Russia likely possesses the largest share of any country. There’s also growing interest in tourism and fishing.
As the economic potential of the Arctic becomes more apparent, governments and militaries have begun to reposition themselves. What’s happening in the Arctic is the starkest example yet of the way climate change directly affects international security.
Here are the main findings of our analysis:
- Since 2008, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, the United States, the European Union, the Nordic countries and NATO have all made major Arctic policy announcements. So many policy announcements from major players in such a short time frame is highly unusual—not just for the Arctic but for international affairs in general.
- A prevalent theme in nearly all the policy announcements was the need to protect the region’s environment in the face of rapid climate change and increased economic activity.
- In most statements, the states have emphasized their commitment to cooperation and to the principles of international law. As one example, the five coastal Arctic states—Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States—agreed in the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration to settle any territorial disputes in the Arctic under the principles of the law of the sea. On the other hand, many of the Arctic states’ actions and statements make it clear that they intend to develop the military capacity to act unilaterally, if necessary, to protect their national interests in the region.
- Most of the Arctic states are modernizing their military forces in the Arctic. For example, the United States recently began operating its newest class of fast attack submarines in the Arctic and the Russians have begun building a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for both fast attack and ballistic missile launching missions. Norway announced plans to purchase 48 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, and both Norway and Denmark have equipped their navies with Arctic combat capabilities. With countries rebuilding their Arctic military capabilities. If political cooperation in the region should sour, most will have forces that are prepared to compete in a hostile environment.
- Non-Arctic states and organizations have also begun to consider Arctic security as well. Of special relevance, NATO has begun to coordinate with its Arctic members on search and rescue. Since Russia views NATO with suspicion, the alliance’s role in the Arctic has the potential to create tensions.
- The principal cause of renewed national interest in the Arctic is the increasing accessibility of Arctic waters. However, interests in the region vary somewhat from country to country. As new sea routes open up, Canada and Russia see their core interests as maintaining sovereignty in their territorial waters, while the United States puts greater emphasis on freedom of the seas for navigation. Russia, meanwhile, has invested tens of billions of dollars in Arctic oil projects, and its recent statements and actions suggest that it will act to safeguard its oil wealth in the region. The importance of Arctic oil will grow for all nations as oil prices continue to rise and the desire for energy security grows.
Although all of the Arctic states emphasize the need for cooperation, most have begun to rebuild their military capabilities beyond a mere policing capacity. At the same time, existing multilateral institutions are too weak to ensure that collegiality will prevail should disagreements become entrenched. Based on our findings, our principal recommendation is that the Arctic states move quickly to strengthen existing multilateral mechanisms before resource competition and core national interests take center stage.
Riches of the North
The Economist has a big article on climate change in the arctic entitled The Melting North. I excerpt here text from the section Riches of the North:
As the frozen tundra retreats northwards, large areas of the Arctic will become suitable for agriculture. An increasingly early Arctic spring could increase plant growth by up to 25%. That would allow Greenlanders to grow more than the paltry 100 tonnes of potatoes they manage now. And much more valuable materials will become increasingly accessible. The Arctic is already a big source of minerals, including zinc in Alaska, gold in Canada, iron in Sweden and nickel in Russia, and there is plenty more to mine.
The Arctic also has oil and gas, probably lots. Exploration licences are now being issued across the region, in the United States, Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. On April 18th ExxonMobil finalised the terms of a deal with Russia’s Rosneft to invest up to $500 billion in developing offshore reserves, including in Russia’s Arctic Kara sea. Oil companies do not like to talk about it, but this points to another positive feedback from the melt. Climate change caused by burning fossil fuels will allow more Arctic hydrocarbons to be extracted and burned.
These new Arctic industries will not emerge overnight. There is still plenty of sea ice to make the north exceptionally tough and expensive to work in; 24-hour-a-day winter darkness and Arctic cyclones make it tougher still. Most of the current exploration is unlikely to lead to hydrocarbon production for a decade at least. But in time it will happen. The prize is huge, and oil companies and Arctic governments are determined to claim it. Shortly before the ExxonMobil-Rosneft deal was announced, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, announced plans to make it much more attractive for foreigners to invest in Russian offshore energy production. “Offshore fields, especially in the Arctic, are without any exaggeration our strategic reserve for the 21st century,” he said.
For half the 20th century the Arctic, as the shortest route between Russia and America, was the likeliest theatre for a nuclear war, and some see potential for fresh conflict in its opening. Russia and Canada, the two biggest Arctic countries by area, have encouraged this fear: the Arctic stirs fierce nationalist sentiment in both. With a new regard to their northern areas, some of the eight Arctic countries are, in a modest way, remilitarising them. Norway shifted its military command centre to the Arctic town of Reitan in 2009. Russia is replacing and upgrading its six nuclear icebreakers, a piece of civilian infrastructure with implications for security too. Yet this special report will suggest that warnings about Arctic conflict are, like the climate, overcooked.
The Arctic is no terra nullius. Unlike Antarctica, which is governed by an international treaty, most of it is demarcated. Of half a dozen territorial disputes in the region, the biggest is probably between the United States and Canada, over the status of the north-west passage. Those two countries will not go to war. And the majority of Arctic countries are members of NATO.
Yet the melting Arctic will have geostrategic consequences beyond helping a bunch of resource-fattened countries to get fatter. An obvious one is the potentially disruptive effect of new trade routes. Sailing along the coast of Siberia by the north-east passage, or Northern Sea Route (NSR), as Russians and mariners call it, cuts the distance between western Europe and east Asia by roughly a third. The passage is now open for four or five months a year and is getting more traffic. In 2010 only four ships used the NSR; last year 34 did, in both directions, including tankers, refrigerated vessels carrying fish and even a cruise liner.
Asia’s big exporters, China, Japan and South Korea, are already investing in ice-capable vessels, or planning to do so. For Russia, which has big plans to develop the sea lane with trans-shipment hubs and other infrastructure, this is a double boon. It will help it get Arctic resources to market faster and also, as the NSR becomes increasingly viable, diversify its hydrocarbon-addicted economy.
There are risks in this, of dispute if not war, which will require management. What is good for Russia may be bad for Egypt, which last year earned over $5 billion in revenues from the Suez Canal, an alternative east-west shipping route. So it is good that the regional club, the Arctic Council, is showing promise. Under Scandinavian direction for the past half-decade, it has elicited an impressive amount of Arctic co-operation, including on scientific research, mapping and resource development.
JC comments: While we can argue about whether the cause of the recent warming in the Arctic is natural or human induced (see my previous post on Likely causes of the recent changes in Arctic sea ice), there is no question that sea ice extent has recent been the lowest extent in the past 60 years. My comments are targeted here at the possible impacts of these economic and security issues on scientific research in the Arctic. Arctic sea ice research came to a screeching halt in 1989; at the end of the cold war, the Office of Naval Research quickly ramped its Arctic Ocean research to basically nothing. NASA, DOE, NOAA and NSF have been funding Arctic research, but nowhere near the same level of investment on Arctic ocean and sea ice research. Here’s to hoping for more observationally based scientific studies and monitoring capability in the Arctic Ocean.