The Russian Geological Survey’s first Arctic summit is currently underway in Moscow. Nearly three hundred delegates, including 58 from the Scandinavian countries, Canada and the United States, meet to discuss climate change and the future exploitation of the Arctic’s natural riches. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia addressed the convention today.
Three years after Russia planted its flag onto the seabed beneath the North Pole, the Kremlin is reportedly regarding the summit as an opportunity to forward its claims in the region. Putin struck a conciliatory tone however. “Even though the Arctic is at the juncture of geopolitical and economic interests,” he said, “all Arctic related issues, including the continental shelf, can be settled by negotiation on the basis of existing international agreements.” Putin envisaged the region as “a venue for establishing true partnership on economic and security issues, education and science and for preserving the cultural legacy of the North.”
Under current UN sea law, the eight Arctic states have jurisdiction over waters extending twelve nautical miles from their shore while their exclusive economic zones stretch up to two hundred miles into the Arctic Ocean. Russia counts for the bulk of Arctic land and has made its designs abundantly clear in recent years. In good Cold War fashion, it has resumed patrolling the region with bomber planes and warships while Moscow invested more than a billion dollars in the expansion of the port of Murmansk which is supposed to double its capacity by 2015.
Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States all claim part of the polar region as well which is rapidly becoming accessible to shipping and mining activity due to global warming.
The Arctic is estimated to contain about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and so much as 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas. Together this represents 22 percent of all untapped but technically recoverable hydrocarbons. Over 80 percent of these resources lie offshore.
Last April, Norway hosted a large-scale NATO exercise above the Arctic Circle. More than 8,500 troops along with 1000 special forces from fourteen different nations participated, including soldiers from Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. Arctic tensions have been rising since Russian president Dmitri Medvedev said in March that his country is prepared to defend its claim on the region’s natural resources.
“We have seen attempts to limit Russia’s access to the exploration and development of the Arctic mineral resources,” said Medvedev at the time. “That’s absolutely inadmissible from the legal viewpoint and unfair given our nation’s geographical location and history.”
Russia most recently clashed with Canada over which country controls the Lomonosov Ridge, a mountain chain that runs underneath the Arctic. Russia and Norway on the other hand signed a treaty last week that ended a forty year long dispute over their maritime borders in the Barents Sea.
In order to fully appreciate these countries’ eagerness to gain a foothold in the Arctic region, Laurence Smith painted the following picture for The Wall Street Journal last week.
If Florida coasts become uninsurable and California enters a long-term drought, might people consider moving to Minnesota or Alberta? Will Spaniards eye Sweden? Might Russia one day, its population falling and needful of immigrants, decide a smarter alternative to resurrecting old Soviet plans for a 1,600 mile Siberia-Aral canal is to simply invite former Kazakh and Uzbek cotton farmers to abandon their dusty fields and resettle Siberia, to work in the gasfields?
Smith predicts the emergence of a “New North” above the 45° parallel, “a place of rising human presence and world interest in the twenty-first century. Such a bloc,” he notes, “would contain over twelve million square miles (more than triple the land area of China), a quarter-billion people, some of the world’s most livable cities and a $7 trillion economy.”
I imagine the high Arctic, in particular, will be rather like Nevada — a landscape nearly empty but with fast growing towns. Its prime socioeconomic role in the twenty-first century will not be homestead haven but economic engine, shoveling gas, oil, minerals and fish into the gaping global maw.
The Arctic nations so far have haven’t exactly rushed to annex the region yet but Smith points out that urbanization and economic opportunities are cause for fast paced growth. Some of these countries, including Norway and Russia, are heavily dependent on the export of natural resources. Moreover, if the earth does warm up quickly; if sea levels rise and natural disasters formerly confined to the tropics become more common in North America and Europe, a northward population shift may not be so far stretched after all.