• Eamonn West

The Arctic Retreat Reveals New Flashpoints


Photo credit: https://www.gettyimages.pt/detail/foto/icebergs-in-jokulsarlon-glacial-lagoon-at-sunset-imagem-royalty-free/1303991075?adppopup=true


One of the great discourses of our time is the debate surrounding climate change. The past few decades have seen discourse slowly evolve to the point where it is factually accepted that humans are the primary cause of this change, and it is up to us to prevent and mitigate its worst effects. Naturally, the conversation is predominantly focused on how to prevent it: what measures to take, what industries to decarbonise, and what technologies to develop. However, these conversations are also side-lining some of the realities that climate change will cause. Regardless of any action made to prevent excess climate change now, our actions have already set in stone some occurrences, such as the opening of the Northern Passages.


The rising temperatures from global warming are having clear impacts on the ice sheets of the Arctic. Projections and trends paint a poor picture for the longevity of the Arctic ice; since 2000, 50 Icelandic glaciers out of 300 have already disappeared, and this rate is set to intensify. (Glacier melt and Arctic change affects the globe, 2019) Julienne Stroeve, a senior researcher at the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre, claims the Arctic will likely have no summer sea ice by the middle of the century. (Dickie, 2020) Climate scientist Maria Vittoria Guarino of the British Antarctic Survey echoes this sentiment, suggesting that the Arctic summer may lose all its ice cover by 2035. (Borunda, 2020) (Guarino et al., 2020)


This is a fundamental shift to the regional status quo. It has not even been 100 years since the first undisputed expedition reached the North Pole in 1926- and they did so by air. The Northwest Passage, a route around the North of North America was only first conquered by sea after a three-year voyage in 1906, and the Northeast Passage, the route around the North of Russia, was only navigated a few decades earlier in 1879. (Northwest Passage, 2021) (Greene, 2018) Now, there is the potential for both the Northwest and Northeast Passages to become regular commercial routes in the next few decades, with some models forecasting that they will become substantially more accessible by 2040-2059. (Smith and Stephenson, 2013) The shockwaves of this commercial viability would be felt across the globe, from the production giant of China to the huge consumer markets of America and Europe. It will have direct impacts on the market tendencies of supply chains and consumer prices, as well as the policy interests and conflict points of nations and supranational organisations.


Currently, the Panama Canal sees over 500 million tonnes of goods flow through it a year and is one of the great feats of modern engineering. (Garcia, 2021) The artery of global trade, the Suez Canal, sees 30% of all global container traffic through it a year. (New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2021) Yet the Northwest passage would offer a route 7,000km shorter for most container ships than through the Panama Canal, and the Northeast passage would offer a route just 1/3rd of the distance for most container ships than through the Suez. (Northwest and Northeast Passages, 2018) While there are likely to be some increase to costs from insurance and strengthening ship hulls to ice, these pale in comparison to the dramatic decrease in fuel costs and transit times. The risk of piracy is also reduced as well in these passages, far away from the routes which pass by hotspots like Somalia, en route to the Suez Canal. Further, although the Panama Canal is in a process of upgrading its capacity to let through wider and longer ships, even the ongoing upgrades will be unable to facilitate the largest container ships, which will thus enjoy the route through the Arctic, rather than around the coast of the Cape Horn. (Plumer, 2017)

There are challenges to overcome in making these routes commercially viable however, even with the rapidly shrinking ice, with poor charting and lack of port infrastructure being two highlighted by Powell. (Powell, 2018) Yet these are not unsolvable problems; greater investment in mapping and charting can ease worries of drifting into shallow waters. Further, there is growing investment into Arctic infrastructure, which will only intensify as commercial viability becomes closer to reality. Canada is planning to redevelop its deep-water port in Manitoba, and Russia in particular is investing significant sums into the development of many Arctic ports. (Murphy, 2018) A critical example is in Taymyr, where Russia is investing a colossal $110 billion in a new mega-port, with oil its major trading focus. (Sisodia, 2022)


Russia has long sought a blue water port, and while this is not likely to be achieved in the Arctic for decades, the length of time these ports are able to be accessed is growing steadily, allowing greater naval reach globally. (Chauhan, 2020) This investment is therefore not purely economic focused, but security-oriented in nature as well. It has also proven to be a diplomatic tool, acting as a beneficial source of cooperation between Russia and China.


China sees the potential in these new routes, with the Northeast Passage offering a great new route for the huge maritime traffic that travels to and from the industry giant that is the Chinese coastland. As such, they have signed 20 bilateral cooperative documents with Russia on, what they have dubbed, the “Arctic Silk Road” and are investing in currently underdeveloped ports across the North of Russia. (Gibson, 2022) This cooperation is complex however, with the Russian invasion in Ukraine adding a difficult layer for policy makers to deal with, with the prevailing global opinion swinging greatly against attachment to Russia.


The Western response to Russian aggression means the potential usage of the Northeast Passage for the West is uncertain. Sanctions and rhetoric between Russia and the West have reached new heights, with the invasion perhaps marking an irreversible difference between Russia and the West which may not heal for decades. As much of the Northeast Passage navigates through Russian waters, Europe may not be able to enjoy the benefit from the route unless significant strides are made in redeveloping Russo-European relations- which looks incredibly unlikely for the foreseeable future.


Tensions between the West and Russia may only get worse due to the retreat of the Arctic; the disappearance of ice is not just revealing new potential routes, but new potential resources as well. The US Geological Survey estimates 25% of the world’s oil and gas reserves lie in the Arctic region, which is why Russia is investing in Arctic, oil-focused, mega-ports. (Gautier et al., 2009) Rare Earth metals are also a key resource expected to become viably exploited as the Arctic retreats. While deep-sea mining is expensive and environmentally costly, nations are eyeing up the huge value of these minerals. In the Russian Arctic alone the estimated value to minerals sits at around $1.5-2 trillion, and these resources prove to be strategically important as well, being vital in the construction of high-tech goods like computers and batteries. (Rowe, 2021) The demand for these minerals will only increase as well, with some of the more common minerals in the Arctic, such as graphite, projected to increase by 300% in the decades to come. (Parlow, 2021) Thus, the exploitation of these minerals looks increasingly likely, and thus threatens to fuel debate over who has the right to mine where, with territorial interests and claims overlapping.


While the ice dominated the Arctic, debates over territorial claims and sovereignty were primarily academic and there was little political capital to try to advance claims. The Arctic retreat has changed that however; the potential for control of popular commercial routes, and territorial sovereignty over swathes of land with untapped resources generates great interest by neighbouring parties.


There is significant debate over the waters in the Northwest Passage for example. Canada regards the waters between its islands as internal, and believes it has the right to absolute sovereignty over these waters- but there will be a steadily growing argument to consider it an international strait under maritime law, as the Northwest Passage becomes more commercially viable. Much of international law is protected by the ability to protect sovereignty and back up your claims. Yet, Canada has struggled in its territorial disagreements to impose monopoly of power. In 1985 the US sent an icebreaker- a special type of ship which can plough through ice- across the Northwest Passage without Canada’s permission. This event all but forced Canada into the 1988 Arctic Cooperation Agreement, which essentially allows the US free access through those waters. (Conflict and Geopolitical Issues in the Arctic, 2018) Hans Island, a tiny island between Greenland and Canada has witnessed the “Whisky Wars”, between Denmark and Canada, with the two governments sending intermittent task forces to remove the other’s flag from the island and put up their own, leaving behind some whisky for the next group to do the same in a cyclical, amicable, conflict up until 2018. (Fitzgerald, 2021)


Nonetheless, the future of conflict across the Arctic is likely to be much less amicable. NATO has doubled its military activities from 2015 to 2020. (Evans, 2021) Russia has invested in the greatest fleet of icebreakers in the world, along with investing significantly in Arctic infrastructure, including 475 new military sites as well as 16 new ports. (Saxena, 2020) These actions highlight a trend from a wide array of actors to militarise the Arctic. Reversing this trend will be difficult with the presence of high-demand materials and the backdrop of high tensions between great powers. Increasing the potential for conflict or political skirmishes is the fact there are no broad political agreements or legal structures to help facilitate mediating disagreements over the Arctic. (Gadihoke, 2012) Though the Arctic Council presides over environmental concerns, its mandate is limited and has been relatively untested considering the emerging potential for flashpoints between great powers in the Arctic.


It would be remiss to not mention the great environmental trade-off regarding the potential seen in the retreating Arctic ice. The Arctic retreat in of itself is an environmental catastrophe, resulting in the massive reduction of habitat for Arctic creatures, as well as itself leading to greater warming, with less ice available to reflect the rays of the sun. Exploitation of Arctic resources, especially through the method of deep-sea mining, would only intensify environmental degradation in the region, with new pipelines and oil exploitation also presenting renewed risk of oil spills in a fragile ecosystem.


Overall, however, it is unlikely for these environmental concerns to override the economic interests of the wide variety of actors observing the region. The implications of new, shorter, commercial routes present great economic opportunity to those far beyond the Arctic, offering the potential to displace great contemporary trade routes such as those navigating the Suez and Panama Canals. Further, the revealing of untapped, rare resources valued in the trillions offers significant profit to those able to exploit them effectively, as well as easing the huge demand for these minerals. This potential, mixed with the new need to defend sovereignty over previously ice-covered territory, risks conflict or political skirmishes between great powers, only intensified by the backdrop of geopolitical tensions between the heavily Arctic-interested powers of Russia and the West.


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