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Thawing Arctic's Resource Race

Prepared by: Toni Johnson
Updated: August 9, 2007


This summer, a team of Russian explorers, including two members of parliament and more than one hundred scientists, went north (LAT) to prove that an Arctic underwater ridge the size of Western Europe is connected to the Siberian continental shelf. “The Arctic is Russian,” (MSNBC) said expedition leader and lawmaker Artur Chilingarov. A week after planting a flag at the North Pole—thus staking claim to the ridge and its mineral riches—Russia announced plans for another expedition to the Arctic in November to “strengthen its position” (Reuters). Russia’s flag stunt is not sitting well with Canada, which also has claims to the Arctic. Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, headed north (AP) too in order to “reassert” Canadian sovereignty, noting in a speech that a “convergence of economic, environmental and strategic factors” in the region “will have critical impacts” (Bloomberg) on the future of the country. “Russia should have waited for a proper scientific review of its Arctic claims before carrying out a symbolic land grab” (CanWest News), said Rob Huebert of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies in Calgary.

For its part, Canada is claiming as its territory the “fabled” Northwest Passage (Guardian), an Arctic maritime route that would shorten shipping from the Pacific to the Atlantic by up to five thousand miles. Canada’s claim is hotly disputed by the United States, which contends the route is in international waters. The passage has long been blocked by ice (AP) but could now open up within a decade. Canada is beefing up its military presence in the region including plans for a deep-sea port. Harper said that “nothing is as fundamental as protecting Canada’s territorial integrity” (Seattle Times) at a time of rising oil, gas and mineral prices.

The pristine, resource-rich Arctic is a growing area of dispute (Spiegel) thanks to climate change. The shrinking polar ice cap has led to rival claims among the eight countries with Arctic borders: the United States, Russia, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark (via control of Greenland). The competition tests the international accord (PDF) that governs oceans and seabeds like never before. The Law of the Sea Treaty gives a nation the option of expanding its ocean economic zone—over which it has exclusive resource-development rights—beyond the two-hundred-mile limit off its coasts if it can prove that the seafloor is actually an extension of its geological territory. The United States is weighing whether to claim up to six hundred miles (USA Today) off the Alaskan coast, but some experts contend U.S. failure to ratify the treaty may complicate the issue. CFR fellow Scott Borgerson argues that the Arctic situation may require a diplomatic solution (IHT) similar to the one in place for Antarctica, where “countries bordering the Arctic could settle their sovereignty disputes in an organized and transparent way.”

In the face of the mostly dire predictions on the impacts of climate change, the shipping, oil, gas, and mining sectors are among those “expected to prosper as snow and ice melts in the north,” reports AFP. At stake are as much as 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas resources as well as access to new caches of minerals and untouched fish stocks. MoneySense magazine says that for investors, “there’s no time like now to stake your claim” because the “Arctic development game is still in its early innings.”

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