The Arctic – It’s Getting Warmer, But Probably Won’t Boil (2/8)     Print Email

By Caitlin Del Sole, Editorial Assistant at European Affairs

It’s cold now, but the north will warm as summer approaches,  and so will  interest and tension in the Arctic region.  Again, large areas of the polar ice will melt making the Arctic Ocean  much more navigable and exploitable.   The expanding waterways provide an opportunity for new, more direct and less dangerous shipping routes to be developed during the summer months.  As roughly 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil is located in the Arctic, it is an increasingly attractive target of investment and energy. With this new opportunity, however,  comes new challenges of safety, environmental protection and conflicting interests.  For example, the Financial Times reports recently that companies, like ConocoPhillips, have been pressuring Norway to open up more Arctic water for exploration.


Pending issues are likely to be addressed, at least initially, by the Arctic Council, composed of the five states that actually touch the Arctic Circle - Russia, Denmark, Norway, Canada and the United States - plus three others, Finland, Iceland and Sweden, which are close and have significant economic and environmental investment in the region.  This organization has jealously guarded its prerogatives and generally opposed the introduction of new international regulation of the area.

The Council, which also includes six groups representative of indigenous peoples, has been working to peacefully settle any remaining territorial disputes, as well as to implement infrastructure to fully develop the Arctic area.  At a high level  meeting, sponsored by the European Institute last year,  members of the Arctic Council and other regional interests  asserted  they are interested in working together to sustain resource development and exploit the opportunities the changing environment presents, while being sensitive to safety, indigenous peoples and environmental implications.  

The members have demonstrated  progress in peacefully resolving  disputes and controversy, thus silencing the longstanding forecasts and fears that the Arctic could be the next potential site of armed conflict. Among these successes include the Ilulissat Declaration, where the five Arctic states reached an agreement to settle any overlapping claims through negotiations and on the basis of international law.

The longstanding border dispute between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea was resolved in a bilateral treaty that went into effect in July 2011, and the Arctic Council agreed on measures intended to strengthen and impose a more concrete institutional structure on the organization.  The Council now has a Secretariat, a budget, and recently has negotiated a legally binding document, the “Agreement on Cooperation in Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic,” which was signed in Nuuk, Greenland.

This agreement is intended to address concerns over safety in the Arctic and outlines the responsibilities of the Arctic states to each other in the case of necessary search and rescue on the Arctic ice or water.  Currently, negotiations are underway for a second legally binding agreement regarding preparedness in the case of an Arctic oil spill, an issue that has caused concern from environmentalists and governments alike.  

Three Arctic Council members are also European Union members, and three of the others are part of the European continent, making the EU an Arctic stakeholder.  Any other non-Arctic organization or state can apply for observer status, and currently France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the UK have been approved.  The EU, as well as several Asian countries, including Japan, China and Indonesia,  have applied.  The addition of six European observer states increases the saliency of the outcome of Arctic issues to Europe.  Anticipating the likely approval of its observer status, the EU has developed its own Arctic strategy, and is in the process of creating and Arctic “information center.”

The EU wants a permanent observer seat to insure its interests in trade routes, environmental and climate change, resource policies, freedom of navigation, and rights of innocent passage.  In its joint communication outlining the EU Arctic strategy, the EU focused on key themes of knowledge, responsibility and engagement.

China, Japan and other Asian countries have been expressing interest in the development and exploitation of the resources and trade routes that melting ice in the Arctic presents.  They argue that the resource rich region should not only benefit the Arctic states.  Many of these countries already have one or more ice breakers.  

China has one of the largest icebreakers in the world, and has begun negotiating with Council members, particularly Russia and Canada, for influence and insight into the challenges presented by the Arctic climate.  Exclusivity and competing interests are not the only concerns the Council and the international community have for the increased navigability in the summer months.  Large oil rigs and a new avenue for shipping make the Arctic an attractive terrorist and piracy target.  Environmentally, the risks involved in developing an already unstable and challenging ecosystem are great, ranging from the difficulty of cleaning an oil spill to the potential changes in the sea level and wildlife.

While these concerns are numerous and pose significant challenges to those involved in developing the Arctic region, they can all be resolved diplomatically, and as the Arctic Council has maintained, they already have started to be resolved.  The biggest potential source of conflict comes with the introduction of foreign companies into a challenging and unstable environment.  As the fight between companies for access to resources continues, members of the Arctic Council fear that insufficient levels of corporate social and environmental responsibility could seriously damage the region.

As long as all of the members of the Arctic Council continue the course of resolving issues diplomatically and maintaining overall integrity of the region, the “dividing” of the Arctic is unlikely to reach the boiling point predicted by many.