Politics Straight, No Chaser
Countries vie for Arctic control
Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, March 20, 2012 02:03
On Sunday night, the new Discovery Channel and BBC multi-part nature documentary “Frozen Planet” debuted. The series features stunning images of our planet’s polar extremes and the landscapes, plants and animals that emerge from their harsh climates. One of the goals of a series like this, made clear by celebrity narrator Alec Baldwin, is to bring awareness to the region’s beauty and the effects of global warming. Mesmerizing footage of killer whales engaging in impeccable teamwork and penguins body-surfing waves to bring food back to their babies waiting on shore are meant to find a soft spot for this endangered region to audiences who threaten its survival.
While global warming is often debated in domestic politics here in the United States, much of the rest of the developed world has accepted it as fact—and all environmental concerns aside, it has major geopolitical implications for the future.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The region that makes up the North Pole is simply ice. As the first episode of “Frozen Planet” documented, the South Pole is a continent surrounded by frozen oceans and the North Pole is a frozen ocean surrounded by continents. Some evidence suggests that the North Pole could be ice-free during the summer months by as soon as 2030.
As the polar ice cap continues to melt it will open the Arctic up to new economic opportunities. The expectation is that even sooner than 2030, shipping lanes will open, connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. The receding ice will also lead to further exploration of natural resources in the region, as the inhospitable Arctic territory combines with advancing technology to allow searches for hot commodities like oil. These factors are amounting to a scramble for national claim to the Arctic and some calls for a larger U.S. presence.
America currently owns two polar icebreakers, both built in the 1970s. They are stationed in Seattle and can break ice up to 21 feet thick. However, they are both currently inoperable. One is undergoing repairs and the other set to be decommissioned. The U.S. Coast Guard has requested six new icebreakers of varying sizes to be built, a request Congress has so far denied.
The United States’ inability to be helpful in a polar crisis was on display this winter when harsh weather forced the northern town of Nome, Alaska to be rescued from a fuel shortage by a Russian ship.
Russia has a large fleet of icebreaking Arctic-ready ships, including some that are nuclear-powered and are the most effective in the world. Politicians like newly re-elected President Vladimir Putin have made bold claims about Russia’s dominance in the Arctic in the coming years. Back in 2007 the Russian military planted a Russian flag at the North Pole, an attempt to symbolize their claim to the region. It’s rumored that extending from the Russian border is an underwater mountain range stretching all the way to the North Pole. After planting their flag, they constructed new bases and have made plan for an increased soldier presence in an attempt to militarize the region.
Russia and China are both engaging in Arctic exploration, in search of oil. The Russian government and gasoline giant Exxon Mobile have struck a deal worth up to $500 billion to explore potential drilling sites. Siberian wells are beginning to dry up in eastern Russia, and the Arctic is one of the last unexplored and untapped oil hotspots in the world. Russia and China have a history of placing economic concerns above environmental concerns, which has nature-conscious scientists and environmental activists around the world nervous of their unchecked presence.
One of the most viable shipping opportunities lies in the Northwest Passage, a route that has long been thought of as the answer to the problem of Arctic travel. Canada has made a claim to the Northwest Passage, and its leaders are saying that they do not have to share it, or its profits, with any other nation. Canadian scientists are attempting to determine the length of the underwater shelf off their coastline and if it extends into the Passage.
The United Nations has stepped in to help determine claims and avoid potential conflict over the land. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea would ensure fair access to all Arctic nations in the future. Russia has not responded favorably to the ruling and Canada has been given until 2013 to prove to the UN its underwater claim to the Northwest Passage.
Here at home, despite President Barack Obama’s support, the convention has not been ratified by Congress. The opposition is two-pronged from ultra conservatives in the political right; in a general sense they do not believe in the fundamental existence of the UN and they prefer that the United States be allowed to pursue our national interests at our own will. Also, many of them deny that global warming exists and, therefore, the United States should not give up our claim and be forced to split territory or future revenue from the region.
It has been difficult for the Obama administration to advance this treaty on an international level without Congressional support. Many in the U.S. do not realize that we are, as strange as it may be to accept, an Arctic nation. For our economic future and the environmental well-being of the Arctic, our politicians must look at the bigger picture. Both in international law and domestic military-industrial preparation, we must brace for a warmer and less icy north, or we will find ourselves left behind.