Melting Arctic brings new opportunities

Changing conditions in the far north have sparked excitement and unfounded concerns over potential conflict.

Melting ice in the Arctic is creating a ‘new Mediterranean’ which will serve as a conduit for global trade [EPA]

Vancouver, Canada – “For the first time in my life, I’m trying to find ice.”

Alex MacIntyre was standing on the bridge of the Akademik Ioffe as the Russian-flagged ice-strengthened cruise ship traversed the Northwest Passage last summer. A Canadian ice-pilot with four decades of Arctic experience, MacIntyre remembers when the route was choked with sea-ice that was 10 to 15 metres thick.

Twenty-two ships sailed through the Northwest Passage in 2011. On the other side of the Arctic Ocean, 34 ships traversed Russia’s Northern Sea Route.

The Arctic Ocean, which exists in a precarious balance between ice and water, is more susceptible to climate change than anywhere else on Earth. A so-called “feedback loop” exacerbates the situation: As climate change warms the air and melts the highly reflective ice from above, it exposes more dark ocean water which acts like a solar sponge, absorbing more energy from the sun and melting the remaining ice from below.

At the current rate, the entire Arctic Ocean could be free of ice in late summer within five years.

Although “first-year ice” will still form each winter, complete summertime melt-outs will mark the end of the thick and hard “multi-year ice” that has always posed the main threat to shipping.

These changes have sparked justifiable excitement about the economic opportunities that will result from easier access, while giving rise to unfounded concerns about military conflict. Indeed, the most significant under-reported aspect of the Arctic is the increase in international co-operation there.

Co-operation, not conflict

In January 2010, according to WikiLeaks, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen that “Canada has a good working relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic” and “there is no likelihood of Arctic states going to war”.

Two months later, at a meeting of the five Arctic Ocean states, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “We need all hands on deck because there is a huge amount to do, and not much time to do it.”

In September 2010, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reiterated that point: “It is well known that, if you stand alone, you cannot survive in the Arctic. It is very important to maintain the Arctic as region of peace and co-operation.”

This interest in co-operation is driven by a desire for geopolitical stability among former Cold War adversaries, which depends on legal certainty concerning the location of boundaries and, with them, control over offshore oil and gas.

With the exception of a tiny islet between Greenland and Canada, ownership of land in the Arctic is not disputed. Unlike the Antarctic, which is a continent surrounded by oceans, the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents; most of the legal issues that arise concern the law of the sea.

The law of the sea grants each coastal state a 200 nautical mile (370 km-wide) “exclusive economic zone” over which it has absolute rights over fish and seabed resources. A coastal state may also have seabed (but not fishing) rights beyond 200 nautical miles, if it can establish scientifically that the seabed in any given area is a “natural prolongation” of the continental shelf closer to shore. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a commission of scientific experts exists to review and legitimate such claims.

The Arctic Ocean is not nearly as large as the Pacific or Atlantic. As a result, these coastal state rights likely cover all but two small areas of deep ocean floor near the centre. With each Arctic country automatically entitled to a large area of uncontested seabed, it has been relatively easy to resolve the few minor overlaps along the edges of their respective zones.

“It is well known that, if you stand alone, you cannot survive in the Arctic. It is very important to maintain the Arctic as region of peace and co-operation.”

Vladimir Putin, Russian prime minister

Russia has concluded boundary treaties with the United States in the Bering Sea and Norway in the Barents Sea – where, until recently, the two countries had disputed 175,000 square kilometres of oil-and-gas rich seabed.

Norway has also settled its boundaries with Iceland and Denmark (which owns Greenland), while Iceland and Denmark have resolved their boundary too. The only remaining boundary dispute of any significance is in the Beaufort Sea between Canada and the US, which are partners in a common energy market under NAFTA. Not surprising, that dispute is also being negotiated peacefully.

There is also a possibility of overlapping Russian, Canadian and Danish claims along the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range that transects the Arctic Ocean. But even there, a co-operative solution seems likely, with the three countries already sharing scientific equipment and data as they seek to establish the limits of their respective sovereign rights.

Economic opportunities

Settled boundaries are a necessary element in accessing the vast amounts of capital and advanced technology needed to develop Arctic offshore oil and gas. As a result of the new boundary treaty in the Barents Sea, Norway’s Statoil has been allowed to invest in Russia’s enormous Stockman gas field, while Russia’s Gasprom has gained access to Statoil’s world-leading technology and expertise.

Co-operation is also essential to prevent and respond to accidents. More than a hundred thousand people fly over the Arctic each day on commercial flights between Asia, Europe and North America. In March 2011, the eight Arctic countries signed a new treaty on search-and-rescue, and are now negotiating treaties on shipping safety and oil-spill response.

Like oil and gas, newly ice-free sea routes offer massive economic gains by cutting thousands of kilometres off sailings between Asia and Europe. Chinese shipping companies alone could save billions of dollars each year by using the Northern Sea Route along the coast of Russia.

Improved access will also bring a dramatic increase in tourism. Already, dozens of ships like the Akademik Ioffe ply the Arctic coastlines of Norway, Greenland and Canada each summer, creating jobs on board and providing a lucrative market for aboriginal artisans on shore.

But while the sea-ice is disappearing, the Arctic will remain a dangerous place. “Icing”, caused by sea spray freezing onto a ship’s infrastructure in sub-zero temperatures, can sink ocean-going vessels. Last year, three ships ran aground in Canada’s Arctic due to inadequate maritime charts. Remote distances can delay search-and-rescue missions by days in a region where winter temperatures of minus 40 degrees are still common.

The combination of great economic opportunity and grossly inadequate infrastructure presents an enticing scenario for foreign investment in the Arctic. One can easily imagine Asian shipping companies being willing to invest in ports of refuge, improved charts, navigation aids, search-and-rescue, weather and ice forecasting along the Russian and Canadian coasts. One can also imagine that Moscow and Ottawa would embrace the chance to spread the costs – provided the investors recognise, as they always do, the sovereignty of the territorial state.

Seen from this perspective, the melting Arctic ice will not lead to military conflict. Rather, it’s creating a new Mediterranean – a “middle sea” – across which the world’s powers will trade.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He is the author of Who Owns the Arctic?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.