|Energy experts estimate that the Arctic contains more than one fifth of the world's petroleum [GALLO/GETTY]
It is considered the final frontier for oil and gas exploitation, and secret US embassy cables published by WikiLeaks confirm that nations are battling to "carve up" the Arctic's vast resources.
"The twenty-first century will see a fight for resources," Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin was quoted as saying in a 2010 cable. "Russia should not be defeated in this fight."
Along with exposing an estimated 22 per cent of the world's oil, ice melting due to global warming will open new shipping lanes, the arteries of global commerce, which nations are competing to control. And Russia certainly is not the only country eyeing the frozen prize.
Per Stig Moller, then Danish foreign minister, mused in a 2009 cable that "new shipping routes and natural resource discoveries would eventually place the region at the centre of world politics".
Canada, the US, Russia, Norway, Denmark, and perhaps even China, have competing claims to the Arctic, a region about the size of Africa, comprising some six per cent of the Earth's surface.
"The WikiLeaks cables show us realpolitik in its rarest form," says Paul Wapner, director of the global environmental politics programme at American University in Washington. "Diplomats continue to think of this as a zero sum world. When they see exploitable resources, all things being equal, they are going to approach them through a competitive nation state system."
The cables come to light at a time when academics and activists fear resource scarcity, particularly over dwindling oil and drinking water supplies, could lead to new international conflicts.
Sir David King, the UK government's former chief scientific adviser, called the invasion of Iraq "the first of [this century's] resource wars", warning that "powerful nations will secure resources for their own people at the expense of others".
In 2007, Russia planted its flag 4,000 metres below the Arctic Ocean, in an attempt to claim that its continental shelf, the geological formation by which claims are measured, extends far into the frozen zone.
"Behind Russia's policy are two potential benefits accruing from global warming, the prospect for an [even seasonally] ice-free shipping route from Europe to Asia, and the estimated oil and gas wealth hidden beneath the Arctic sea floor," noted a 2009 cable articulating US beliefs.
Presently, the Russians are far ahead of the US and other Arctic countries to take advantage of what will happen offshore, says Bruce Forbes, a research professor at the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland in Finland. "The cables confirm what we as scientists already know; [global warming means] the Arctic is not just this hinterland, as it is portrayed in the mainstream media."
In its 2010 Quadrennial Defence Review report, the Pentagon stated: "Climate change and energy are two issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment."
If humans do not drastically reduce their fossil fuel consumption, and current trends continue, the world is heading for a significant temperature increase, melting polar ice caps and causing sea levels to rise between 0.9 and 1.6 meters this century, according to a study from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme released in early May.
The idea that global warming will melt polar icecaps and allow for new petroleum exploitation in the far north represents a terrible irony, says Andrea Harden-Donahue, a researcher with the Council of Canadians, a social justice organisation.
"Climate change is making these resources easier to exploit, while burning these resources will only contribute to more climate change," she says.
"In Canada, we have seen a number of well-known actors, including BP and Chevron, exploring for oil and gas in the Beaufort Sea. In the US, Shell is consistently trying to get access to resources off the coast of Alaska; BP hopes to develop off the coast of Russia and Cairn energy have already been awarded licenses in Greenland and they are likely to start [drilling] this year.
"If [these companies] are allowed to move forward, I don't think it is unreasonable that we would see a scramble for these resources."
A 2008 cable quotes Russian Navy head Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky as saying: "While in the Arctic there is peace and stability, however, one cannot exclude that in the future there will be a redistribution of power, up to armed intervention."
But verbose rhetoric about conflict could be linked to politicians who want to support the military-industrial complex and boost their own stature, rather than actual fears of impending violence, cables suggest.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere is referred to in a 2009 cable, describing "how, during his March 2009 visit to Moscow, he thanked [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov for making it so much easier for him to justify the Joint Strike Fighter purchase to the Norwegian public, given Russia's regular military flights up and down Norway's coast".
The programme to develop the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is expected to cost the US and its allies more than $380 billion, meaning it is likely the most expensive military project in history - and politicians seem to feel the need to justify such a massive outlay of resources to sceptical electorates.
|Environmentalists worry that oil exploitation in the Arctic will damage fragile ecosystems [GALLO/GETTY]
Canadian politicians, including recently re-elected Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, are also capitalising on fears of northern conflict to buttress narrow partisan agendas.
Harper has made several high profile visits to the far north, boasting that: "From Afghanistan to the Arctic, from the coast of Somalia to the shores of Nootka Sound [on Vancouver island] we will be able to see what the bad guys are up to," with new military satellites.
Commenting on Harper's rhetoric in a 2010 cable, US diplomats note that: "The persistent high public profile which this government has accorded 'Northern Issues' and the Arctic is, however, unprecedented and reflects the PM's views that 'the North has never been more important to our country' - although one could perhaps paraphrase to state 'the North has never been more important to our Party'."
While politicians pound their chests over resource claims, Prof Forbes says the risk of actual conflict is minimal, because there are international institutions and treaties governing competing claims.
The Arctic Council, composed of eight Arctic nations, is the main discussion forum for issues related to the far north and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the US has not signed, is supposed to govern resource claims in the region.
During a meeting of the Arctic Council held on May 12 in Greenland, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said that US ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention was "way overdue".
Clinton's desire to change US policy to sign the convention may have more to do with resource battles than respect for international institutions.
"If you stay out [of the convention]" then-Danish foreign minister Moller is quoted as saying in 2009 cables, "then the rest of us will have more to carve up in the Arctic".
The US position of not ratifying the convention means it cannot put forward a formal claim to the seabed directly north of Alaska, says Oran Young, a professor of environmental science at the University of California.
"If I knew why the US hasn't signed, I'd be happy," Young says, speculating that lobbyists for the mining industry and some senators who display "knee jerk negativism to the UN in general" were driving the decision.
In a 1987 speech, Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the former USSR, described the "threatening character" of NATO in the far north. Today, NATO's role in the Arctic is unclear.
"There is no reason for NATO to have a strong Arctic profile," says Timo Koivurova, a visiting professor specialising in northern issues at the University of New South Wales in Australia. "All the Arctic Ocean coastal states have behaved exactly as the Law of the Sea dictates."
But plenty of other people, from scholars to diplomats and military officials, do not entirely share Koivurova's optimistic view.
"The very best case scenario [for peace in the arctic] is that we move beyond fossil fuels," says American University's Paul Wapner. "The best case scenario is that we have cooperative institutions - with representatives of indigenous people - who use peaceful and cooperative means to ensure fair access to these resources.
"The doomsday would be competitive resource wars. As climate change gets worse, people will be pushed to get more resources to run their air conditioners and so forth. My prediction is that we are still going to be addicted to oil [when the main icecaps melt] and these resources are going to be extracted by the most powerful lot - which would include Russia, the US and China."
Follow Chris Arsenault On Twitter: @AJEchris