Understanding Arctic, the crossroads of the world

arctic-regionArctic is a polar region located at the north of the earth. This is the place where they have 24 hours of sunlight or 24 hours of darkness depending upon the time of the year. The Arctic region is made up of USA, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland and Russia. These 8 countries together form the Arctic Council, an organization similar to United Nations but governs the Arctic region. Along with these eight states there are 6 organizations which are the permanent participants . These indigenous organizations have the same status as countries on the council and bring the indigenous voice in the Arctic to the table.

These are the organizations:
1) The Saami Council
2) Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North – RAIPON
3) Inuit Circumpolar Council – ICC
4) Gwich’in Council International – GCI
5) Arctic Athabaskan Council – AAC
6) Aleut International Association – AIA

On the hindsight it may seem that all the states and organizations in the council are involved in the discussion but unfortunately this isn’t the case. Also in the Arctic council are observers which are the countries which aren’t in the Arctic region but are interested in the Arctic region. The observer countries from Europe are France, Germany and UK among others but also other countries like China, India, South Korea and Japan have got involved in the conversation. Now the question arises, why are all these countries looking north.

Climate change is changing the Arctic in a way we have never seen before. The Arctic is warming faster than any other region in the world and this is causing tangible and measurable changes for something that people still argue is very abstract. From 1979 when the sea ice was first measured, to 2012, the sea ice has been cut in half. This is a big issue because it disrupts the Arctic food chain and it affects the people who call this region home.

When we have open ice; we also have open access. Oil and gas companies have definitely taken notice of this fact. The reality is that the Arctic is home to 90 billion barrels of untouched oil and 44 billion barrels of untouched natural gas. Norway and Russia have really gotten involved in the Arctic oil industry and Norway as of late has had lots of success in this regards. Russia on the other hand seem to be putting all their oil eggs in the same Arctic basket. They have spent so much time and money in Arctic, that oil and gas companies like Rosneft and Gazprom are having huge economic and political implications in Russia. While the world is shying away from Arctic oil, Russia seems to be going full power. It can be very dangerous since Arctic is a very unwelcoming environment for oil extraction because of its isolation and distances. If God forbid there was to be an accident or oil spill, the cleanup would take incredible efforts and the logistics/ cost involved would be tremendous.

In the past an oil rig had gone lose from its tugboat going up to the coast of Alaska and smashed into two islands before coming to a stop. If that rig would have been full of oil, the world would have known about its implications. When we are talking about the oil development in the Arctic, we also have to keep in mind, that there are people who call Arctic home. Few years ago The National Energy board approved a license to do seismic testing off the coast of Baffin Island in the Davis Strait. Seismic testing is essentially when a ship would pull 6 or 8 giant air cannons behind them and blast them off every second. The blasts are so loud that any animal in the water within 100 nautical miles of the blast is at the risk of death. Clyde river, a community on Baffin Island reached out to organizations like Greenpeace to protest against this and are also in the process of going to the Supreme court. The reason for that is to protect the Narwhal, a medium sized whale found in Arctic waters in the Davis Strait.

The question of development in the Arctic for the indigenous people isn’t usually a question of yes or no but right or wrong. Talking example of Greenland, which is home to one of the world’s largest uranium deposits. They are still in the conversation that whether pursuing the deposits is something that is going to be worthwhile. The Greenland has had lots of chances to have lots of economic benefits because of the mining. Greenland is the home to modern gemstones and they are currently mining for these gemstones.

With melting ice we have open water. The shipping companies have taken note of this fact. There are 3 routes through the Arctic region that have been mapped out. One belongs to Russia and one to Canada. This is why lots of Asian states are getting involved in the Arctic conversation and countries like China have their own Arctic Ice breaker e.g. Snow Dragon. Russia is home to one of the routes and it’s called the northern sea route and essentially goes from Murmansk around to Vladivostok. This route would cut the travel time between Rotterdam and Shanghai in half. This route is through Russian territorial waters so Russia has the right to say who is allowed to enter and what type of cargo passes through the region. Russia ensures that this route is open year round with the help of its nuclear icebreaker fleet. Canada is also home to one of the another route and it’s the infamous impassable northwest passage, the magical trade route to get from Europe to Asia without having to go around rest of the world. China and USA both have reached out to Canada and have asked to open its waterways as international waterways which would essentially allow anyone to cross through as if it were international waters. The third route is one that would cross through Norway straight over through the middle of the Arctic ocean. This route has 2 concerns. One is that it would mean an ice-free Arctic and secondly it would be passing through what we call the ‘donut hole’. This is the space of the Arctic ocean that belongs to no one. Arctic council has to figure out a way to ascertain who it belongs to. Countries have to prove that there is a space, ridge or some sort of land attached to their country that passes through the donut hole to claim it. And this is where the Lomonsov Ridge comes into play. Canada, Denmark and Russia have all claimed that the ridge belongs to them as it is attached to their country and it crosses through the hole. There are chances that it is attached to all three of them which would require another way to find out its rightful owner. But right now this is the process that everyone is going through to claim that donut hole.

We cannot talk about the Arctic if we don’t talk about Russia since Russia’s landmass takes about 40% of the Arctic region . Russia has by far the best infrastructure access and military presence in the Arctic region. Over the past few years we have seen increased tensions between Russia and the west and this started with the annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine into the Russia federation and was recently followed by the downing of Russia aircraft by Turkish air forces in the middle east. In the Arctic, Russia, EU, USA, Canada are all actively participating on a consensus basis. Everything that happens in Arctic is at the Arctic council’s consensus.

Issues like climate change, resource extraction, energy prices, Russia-west relationship, these are all things that cross through Arctic region but usually this region is not a topic of our everyday discussions which is unfortunate. Also Arctic region was largely ignored in the recent Paris Agreement which commits to solve the problem of climate change in the world. It’s ironic since the Arctic region is warming twice as fast any other part of the world. What happens in this region would ultimately affect the rest of the world which is why I have called this region as the ‘crossroads of the world’.

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