Race for the Arctic

Under the silvery, frosted terrain of the Arctic lies supposed treasure perhaps greater than gold; the cold continent has been de facto divided into several territories for resource-hungry superpowers. What kind of “cold war” has recent geopolitics created?

Arctic ice abatement is an ongoing complication and will continue for the next hundred years or so until completely dissipated. Nations like the United States, Russia, and Scandinavia have taken advantage of the arctic’s melting to search for oil and natural gas deposits. The Lowy Institute for International Policy estimates there to be 203 billion barrels of oil beneath the surface of the pristine land. For comparison, America, Russia, and Scandinavia combined have approximately 110 billion barrels in oil reserves. But, the value of these resources cannot be measured quantitatively.

For example, Russia’s colossal economy stands on a heavy layer of natural resource exports. In Scandinavian countries (Norway especially, with the decline of reserves in the Norwegian Sea), there is a need for more reserves as their economy is also heavily dependent on profitable exports. And though United States natural resource exports account only for 1% of the GDP, an upper-hand in global politics is enough of a yield. On the whole, the value of these resources presents countries with economic growth. Although considerable capital gains are beneficial, excessive greed can prove harmful to feuding countries.

The absence of Arctic demarcation creates a priori conflict of ownership. Indeed, Russia is ahead of the U.S. as far as Arctic capability goes, but neither of the global forces have official claim over territory. So, the only countries holding official territory are: the United Kingdom, Norway, New Zealand, France, Chile, Australia and Argentina (three of these nations have overlapping territory). Yet, both Russia and the United States have a domineering military presence in the shared continent that is imposing upon already sovereign lands and ongoing research. Tensions arise not only because their territory is unofficial, but also for a deluge of competition. On the other hand, there is evidence that the search for profit on the new frontier has in fact unified some countries. For instance, Scandinavia and Russia know that feuding would only hurt their already fragile economies. Many say the enthusiasm for energy can create disdain, but the binding amity can help researchers do what is necessary for the environment.

The world knew more than fifty years ago that the arctic was important. The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 showed significance for the uninhabited pole of earth. Article I of the document stated “Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only,” and Article III stated, “scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available.” Perhaps a symbolic renewal of the treaty will shed light on environmental issues that scientists have been studying for decades. Consequently, the race for the Arctic is gradual. The treaty does not permit unilateral, physical intervention, and so we should not expect a rapid update on the issue.

Naturally, we must prioritize the immaculate ecological foundation of the Arctic. President Obama’s Executive Order highlighted the next step for the region: “…national defense; sovereign rights and responsibilities; maritime safety; energy and economic benefits; environmental stewardship; promotion of science and research; and preservation of the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea as reflected in international law.” There is undoubted tension between countries for affluence through natural resources, but, for once, the sharing of science through consolidated efforts can be healthful for the changing arctic climate; subsequently, there could be betterment for a global economy.