Russian designers deny existing ice breakers will be adapted for military purposes [GALLO/GETTY]

Ice in the Arctic is receding at an alarming rate, opening up the possibility of new shipping routes and the exploitation of the region's oil and gas resources. 

Russia is taking the lead in the race, with orders for several ice breaking ships and its plan to turn the crumbling Arctic city of Murmansk into the "Emirates of the North".

From a snow covered hill overlooking Murmansk you can see the full scale of the city's port; a jumbled mass of metal and concrete clustered on the slopes of a sheltered fjord.  

In depth


 The Arctic fight for survival 
 Gallery: Arctic adventure
 Video: The Arctic scramble
 From the edge of the world
 Video: Explorer Pen Hadow
 Video: Strategic Murmansk

Murmansk's strategic harbour has been fought over for generations, facing almost complete destruction in the second world war. 

During the Cold War it was the centre of Soviet submarine activity and remains the headquarters of Russia's northern fleet.

These days the city is more content as the region's biggest coal export facility.

Transport trains rattle into sidings, groaning cranes load raw materials into the dark bowels of waiting ships. 

Russia's frontline

Moored at the heart of the port is the two-year-old ice-breaker 50 Let Pobedy (which means 50 years since victory), its bright orange hull a sharp contrast to the weather-beaten facades of Murmansk’s crumbling shipyard. 

As the race to control large swathes of the Arctic heats up vessels like this are forming Russia's new offensive frontline.

In 2007, another ice-breaker, the Akademik Fyodorov charged its way up to the North Pole, all in the name of science. 

But the voyage, headed by Arthur Chilingarov, a polar scientist, explorer and politician - and one of Russia's living heroes, was seen globally in more political terms.

Its goal was to gather evidence on whether the undersea Lomonosov ridge is a continuation of Russia's Arctic shelf. 

The evidence is part of research to be submitted to the United Nations by 2011 that could allow Russia to stake a claim on massive swathes of Arctic territory.

A previous claim submitted in 2001 was rejected for lack of evidence.

During the mission in 2007 a titanium Russian flag was lowered nearly 4,000 metres onto the sea bed. 

Chilingarov said the flag would be a "permanent mark" of Russia's presence at the pole. 

The move prompted outrage from countries that also claim Arctic territory. 

"This isn't the 15th century" Peter MacKay, the Canadian foreign minister, said on national television at the time.

The Russian expedition leader fiercely defended the voyage.

"If someone doesn't like this," Chilingarov declared, "let them go down themselves ... the Arctic has always been Russian".

Sabre rattling

Russia has been operating in the Arctic region for a number of years. About 22 per cent of the country's gross domestic product and 22 per cent of exports come from the area.

Since 2007, a number of countries bordering the Arctic have launched competing claims to the territory.

Russia, Norway, Canada, Denmark (via Greenland) and the United States have all engaged in some degree of sabre rattling over the region.

Current maritime law allows countries an economic zone of 200 nautical miles beyond their borders. This can be extended if a country can prove that the geological structure of a ridge matches its own territory.

The sudden surge in interest over the Arctic comes with the discovery of massive new oil and gas deposits. It's believed that 25 per cent of the world's untapped reserves lie underneath the ice.  

Canada recently published the first comprehensive map of the Arctic's riches, showing signs of volcanoes, fault lines and also diamond deposits.

"The smell of oil and gas has brought countries running," says Aleksander Kondakov, director of technical operations at the Murmansk Shipping Company.

Exploiting resources

The Shtokman field is one of the world's largest natural gas fields. It lies east of Murmansk in the middle of the Barents Sea.

Russia controversially planted a flag on the Arctic sea bed in 2007 [AP]
Russia, along with Norway and international energy companies, have worked together on exploiting reserves for over a decade. 

By 2020, it's expected that the amount of gas extracted from Shtokman will be able to meet the annual demands of a country the size of France.

So far major global oil companies like Norway's Statoil Hydro, the world's largest off shore oil and gas company, are showing huge interest in Russia's potential. 

It's thought that drilling platforms like Shtokman will pave the way for future projects across the Arctic - and many believe that Russia has the most promise compared to its competitors in the push to exploit the regions unexplored reserves.

The Saint Petersburg based Krylov Ship Building Research Institute has designed 11 ice-class ships for a number of oil companies.

The centre boasts the largest test pool in the world and it is here that Russia's Arctic ambitions are slowly taking shape.

"Since Russia has the largest northern sea line," Vladimir Shylyachkov, the chief designer, tells Al Jazeera, "it is only natural that Russia has more rights to the Arctic".

Shipping supremacy

Further along Saint Petersburg's Neva River is the Admiralty Ship Yard where boats have been built since the 18th century. 

Peter the Great, the tsar of Russia from 1682 to 1725, constructed a fleet in the yard that would go on to defeat the Swedish empire in the Great Northern War between 1700 and 1721. 

Now, Russia is building ships for a different kind of struggle, that of supremacy over mans' last great wildernesses.

Looming over the quayside is the Mikhail Ulyanov, a new generation of ice-breaker tankers still under construction. When finished, it will ship oil to and from the Arctic.

According to Shylyachkov, Russia has a clear advantage over its opponents: "We have the biggest civil and Arctic fleet, not just icebreakers but also tankers and other ships, we also have the greatest experience in working in the region."
 
Militarising the Arctic

During his time as president, Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, set about securing his country's "strategic, economic, scientific and defence interests" in the Arctic, something that has been continued under his successor Dmitry Medvedev.  

Russia is building a new fleet of ships to gain supremacy in the resource-rich Arctic
The country's fleet of privately run, aging nuclear ice breakers have been taken over by the government. 

The construction of new ships now takes place in military shipyards rather than crumbling civil ones.

So far work is slow and costly but nevertheless taking shape.

Some analysts however believe the Arctic nations need to be preparing for more than a commercial standoff.

In March, a Kremlin strategy paper was released to the media outlining Russia's plans to create a new military force to protect its interests in the disputed Arctic.

The paper said that the Arctic must become Russia's "top strategic resource base" by the year 2020.

Intelligence gathering

Russian design chiefs deny existing ice breakers can and will be adapted for military purposes, although some vessels could be used for intelligence gathering purposes. 

Unlike the US and Canada, who already have an armed coast guard of ice breaker vessels, Russia's fleet claims to be solely civil.

The potential for conflict in disputed Arctic waters has drawn the attention of Nato.

Military strategists say they cannot rule out the possibility of armed confrontation in the immediate future. As the Arctic thaws, new security risks abound. 

Russia and Canada have already traded verbal attacks over each others claims.

In 2005, Canada even launched a small-scale military operation against Denmark over a disputed rocky outcrop off the coast of Greenland. 

Exercise "Frozen Beaver" saw Canadian troops land and rip down the Danish flag that had been flying there since 1984.

'Emirates of the North'

In Murmansk, years of neglect are taking their toll on the decaying buildings, the roads are pot-holed and new construction scarce. 

But many in the city are optimistic about the future. With new oil and gas reserves set to open up in the Arctic region, Murmansk is tipped to become a major transport hub. 

The port is situated in the extreme northwest part of Russia, on the Kola Bay, 12km from the Barents Sea and not far from the country's borders with Norway and Finland.

Significantly it lies at the start of the Northwest Passage, a key Arctic shipping route, that will allow the transport of goods across the whole of the northern hemisphere as the ice recedes. 

"We expect the city to become the Emirates of the North," says Kondakov.

But as fierce competing claims to the Arctic continue, releasing Murmansk and Russia's full economic potential is not going to be an easy task.

Source: Al Jazeera