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An Arctic Circle of Friends

Authors: Scott G. Borgerson, and Caitlyn Antrim, Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans
March 28, 2009
New York Times

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The North Pole is under siege by global warming. The sea ice there has lost half its thickness in the past six years, and all signs point to further rapid melting. By 2013, the entire Arctic could be devoid of ice in summer, and the region is likely to experience an influx of shipping, fishing and tourism. Russia planted its flag in the North Pole's ocean floor two years ago, and other northern nations find themselves under mounting pressure to lay claim to huge swaths of the seabed. Before the land grab goes too far, the nations most involved should turn the northernmost part of the Arctic into a great park - a marine preserve that protects the polar environment and serves as a center for peaceful, international scientific research.

The Arctic's pristine waters are a leading indicator, and an important regulator, of global climate health. They are the beginning and the end of the so-called great ocean conveyor, the mighty current that connects all the world's oceans. And they are home to a vibrant ecosystem that supports whales, polar bears and terns.

Driving much of the new interest in the Arctic, however, are the stores of oil and gas that lie beneath the water - amounting to an estimated 22 percent of the earth's remaining supplies. The largest deposits, however, are likely to be found in the shallower parts of the continental shelf, within the surrounding countries' existing economic zones. Any fields found at greater depths, within the boundaries of the proposed park, would be prohibitively expensive to exploit for at least decades to come. For sovereignty claims, North Pole oil is a red herring.

The Convention on the Law of the Sea, the international treaty that sets the rules for ownership of ocean resources, recognizes that Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia, the four countries neighboring the Arctic Ocean, may be entitled to extend their seabed boundaries - and even sets a deadline for doing so. (Because the United States has not joined the Convention, it cannot make a claim to the extended continental shelf.) But it leaves it to those countries to resolve overlapping claims among themselves. Disputes over jurisdiction stand to slow the process of setting up a system for protecting the Arctic and could also poison international relations elsewhere. The creation of an international park would head off both problems.

One approach would be for the states and international organizations most involved in the Arctic to designate everything above 88 degrees latitude north--a circle with a 120-nautical-mile radius--as a marine park. This would be consistent with an idea presented in 1987 by Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union to create an Arctic "zone of peace." And it has precedent in the 1959 treaty that created an international zone for scientific research in Antarctica, and that has governed that continent so well ever since.

Like Antarctica, the park could be managed by an international cooperative, including not only Canada, Denmark and Russia but also the United States, China, Finland, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden and any other countries that engage in Arctic research.

Canada, Denmark and Russia would benefit from such an initiative because each would avoid the kind of legal conflict and jurisdictional uncertainty that could discourage private investment in the surrounding areas. And the sovereignty extensions that have already been approved by the Continental Shelf Commission, a body established by parties to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, could be put into effect without delay. All three countries could also use the new scientific research to help them better manage their Arctic resources. And the park would not interfere with any nation's freedom of navigation.

It might seem presumptuous for Americans to suggest that our northern neighbors forgo ownership of even a small part of the Arctic seabed. Admiral Robert Peary may have planted the American flag at the North Pole 100 years ago, but we have no territorial stake in the Lomonosov Ridge, the submarine link between Eurasia and North America that is the source of the competing claims. We do, however, have a vested interest in the peaceful development of the Arctic as a region. As citizens of a shared earth, we also have a stake in the greater good that can come from exploring the depths of the fastest warming part of the planet. American leadership on a polar park would send a clear message that we are attuned to the climate crisis.

Scott Borgerson is the visiting fellow for ocean governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. Caitlyn Antrim is the executive director of the Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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