Posts Tagged ‘Melting Arctic Ice Cap’

Will the Arctic be the next big arena of conflict?

December 9, 2015
Double click to enlarge.

Double click to enlarge.

The warming Arctic is likely to be a new arena of conflict between Russia and the USA.

But unlike in current conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, there will be no question of democracy or a fight against terrorism to cloud the central issue—control of oil and gas resources and transportation routes.

The infrographic by the South China Morning Post provides a good snapshot of the situation.   The potential conflict in the Arctic is even more dangerous than existing conflicts, because of its potential for direct confrontation between the USA and Russia.

The other nations with the greatest physical presence in the Arctic are Canada and Denmark (which controls Greenland).   It will be interesting to see whether they will follow the lead of the United States or try to steer an independent course.

The irony of the situation is that the Arctic is being opened up by global warming, which causes the Arctic ice cap to shrink over time, and that the warming is caused mainly by burning of fossil fuels, but the new oil and gas supplied from the Arctic will make it easier and cheaper to keep on burning fossil fuels.

The best outcome would be for the Arctic powers to agree on sharing and conserving the region’s resources.  That doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.

Russia and the Northern Sea Route

September 5, 2013

SEA-ROUTES

As the Arctic ice cap melts, the Russian government is trying to develop a Northern Sea Route, as a better and shorter way to connect northwestern Europe with northeastern Asia than the Southern Sea Route through the Suez Canal.

It is an example of how leaders of nations such as Russia, China and others are working quietly to develop their assets and build up their strength, while American leaders take the strength of the United States for granted and heedlessly dissipate it through reckless military actions and neglect of national needs.

The map is from a 2011 article in The Guardian.  Click on Melting Arctic ice clears the way for supertanker voyages to read it.

Click on With Arctic ice melt, ships now ply the Northern Sea Route for a more recent article from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

An Arctic future that’s already here

June 4, 2012

The future is already here, the science fiction writer William Gibson once wrote; it just isn’t widely distributed.  Charles Emmerson in his 2010 book, The Future History of the Arctic, said the future of the Arctic is already here, shaped by the melting of the polar caps, the opening of the Arctic Ocean to navigation and the world’s appetite for the Arctic’s natural resources, especially its oil and gas.   I learned a lot from the book about the present and future importance of the Northern world.

Russia is the nation with the largest presence in the Arctic and strongest commitment to developing the Arctic, Emmerson said; the Russians are more oriented toward their Far North than any other people except Greenlanders.  This goes back to the old Soviet Union.  The first Heroes of the Soviet Union were Arctic aviators and explorers, and many Gulag forced laborers died building the White Sea canal and other Arctic infrastructure.

In present-day Russia, exports of oil and gas are the basis of the economy, and as production in the older oil fields peaks out, the new Arctic fields become critically important.

Gazprom, a company in which the Russian government holds a majority interest, is the world’s largest producer of natural gas and owns the world’s largest natural gas reserves.  It has an ambitious plan to develop Arctic gas fields and  ship liquified natural gas (LNG) from Arctic ports.   Like the old USSR, Russia is determined to press forward regardless of cost, efficiency or the ups and downs of oil and gas prices.

The Russian dilemma is that its energy industry needs the technological expertise of Western companies, but the government is unwilling to accept foreign control of its resources.  Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oil magnate, was reportedly on the verge of selling a large part of his company, Yukos, to ExxonMobil and Chevron when he was arrested in 2003.

The United States and Canada became Arctic powers partly as a result of historical accident.  The purchase of Alaska from Russia by U.S. Secretary of State William Seward in 1867 was unpopular.  Also in 1867, the British North American Act created the Dominion of Canada, consisting of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the southern parts of present-day Quebec and Ontario.  British Columbia was a separate entity and most of the land area of present-day Canada was controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was devoted to trading for furs with the native peoples.  Canada’s Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, alarmed by Seward’s ambition to acquire British Columbia and Greenland, negotiated the purchase of the Hudson Bay territories, and persuaded British Columbia to join Canada by promising to build a Canadian Pacific Railroad.  Without Seward and MacDonald, history may have taken a different course.

Oil companies in Canada and Alaska are pressing forward, but they are constrained by economic and environmental considerations more than the government-controlled Russian companies.

Leaders of the native peoples of Alaska and northern Canada are caught in the middle.  They want economic development, but also want to continue traditional activities such as whale and seal hunting.  They distrust the oil companies, but think they can deal with them, and they have no use at all for environmentalists, who, as the native leaders see it, want to deprive them of the benefits of the modern world.  Arctic warming threatens this way of life regardless of what the oil, gas and minerals do.  Any actions to mitigate global warming will not change the current situation, but may prevent things from getting even worse 20 or 30 years from now.

Emmerson thinks Norway has the most enlightened and balanced approach to development of its Arctic resources.  Iceland is attractive to outside companies because of its abundant geothermal and hydroelectric power, and Greenland even more so because of the potential resources under the melting Greenland ice cap.   Iceland’s population is slightly over 300,000, less than Monroe County, N.Y., where I live, and Greenland’s is about 56,000, yet many Greenlanders want independence from Denmark.  They are in much the same position as the Persian Gulf sheikdoms, tiny communities sitting on enormous resources which they lack the power to defend.

The book is worth reading, and contains a lot more interesting material.  One sidelight, and sign of the times:  The world’s largest manufacturer of icebreakers is Aker Arctic, a Finnish company, but the only work still done in Finland is design and testing of prototypes.  Manufacture has been outsourced to Korea.

Click on The Guardian, Financial Times and Eye on the Arctic for reviews of Emmerson’s book.

Click on The potential wealth of a warming Arctic and Navigating a warming Arctic Ocean for maps showing national territorial claims, Arctic oil and gas fields and potential Arctic sea routes.

[Added 6/5/12]  A number of people, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last Saturday, have called on the Arctic nations to make the region a zone of peace and international cooperation.  It certainly would be a good place to begin.  Without enlightened action, the Arctic seems destined to become a zone of economic rivalry, political conflict and military confrontation.