Global climate change has caused unprecedented changes to the Arctic environment, especially a rapid decrease in the summer sea ice sheet. While perilous to the survival of the iconic polar bear, many humans are watching these changes with an eye to what riches an open Arctic Ocean might bring forth: in oil and gas, mining, and open-water transportation. Five countries can lay claim to the potential wealth of the Arctic Ocean: Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States. But it is Russia and Canada in particular that have jumped out to the early lead in this new race for the Arctic. This month, Nicholas Breyfogle and Jeffrey Dunifon explore Russia's long history in the Arctic and the roots of its current assertive policies in the region.
*Update: you can find an interview with one of the authors, Nicholas Breyfogle, on climate change at our podcast Writers Talk History.
On environmental issues, readers may also want to see these Origins articles: Climate Change and Human Population; Global Food Crisis; Food Security and Gene Banks; Population Growth in India; World Water Crisis; Nuclear Power in Japan; U.S. Energy Policy; and Over-Fishing. On Russia, please see Russian Politics and Russia and Georgia.
On a sunny day in late April 2003 at a site about 150 km from the North Pole, Artur Chilingarov, famed polar explorer and member of the Russian parliament, straightened his arm into the air, fired his pistol, and declared: "This is our Arctic, this is the Russian Arctic, and the Russian flag should be here."
Huddled together for warmth, a dozen Russian explorers had just raised their national colors, ceremoniously opening the first Russian polar research station in the Arctic since the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Known as North Pole-32, it was the thirty-second drift monitoring station Russians had set up on the Arctic ice since 1937. As the ice flowed and moved, the scientists stayed at the outpost until March 2004, when the ice destabilized, shooting up huge ridges, destroying the camp, and requiring a rescue evacuation. Before disaster struck, they conducted wide-ranging scientific research on weather, ice, temperature, Arctic biology, and navigation.
Though the world largely ignored Chilingarov's words and actions at North Pole-32, he would again publicize Russia's claims to the Arctic in 2007. This time, everyone took notice.
Miles below the site of his previous declaration, a MIR submersible carried Chilingarov and two others to the Arctic seabed, the first time humans had done so at the North Pole.
There, 14,000 feet (2.5 miles) below the ice, the submersible collected rock samples and planted a titanium Russian flag.
The international response was immediate:
Canadian Foreign Minister Peter McKay exploded. "This is posturing. This is the true north strong and free, and they're fooling themselves if they think dropping a flag on the ocean floor is going to change anything. There is no question over Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. We've made that very clear. We've established—a long time ago—that these are Canadian waters and this is Canadian property. You can't go around the world these days dropping a flag somewhere. This isn't the 14th or 15th century."
John B. Bellinger III, legal adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State, remarked: "We knew they were going to the North Pole, but we didn't know they were going to plant the flag. It was a provocative action, and took us aback."
The western press echoed the outrage: a "stunt fueled by a return to czarist impulses;" a "Kremlin-sponsored act of bravado aimed at boosting national pride."
Russian President Vladimir Putin sounded a note of conciliation: "Don't worry. Everything will be all right. I was surprised by a somewhat nervous reaction from our Canadian colleagues. Americans, at one time, planted a flag on the moon. So what? Why didn't you worry so much? The moon did not pass into the United States' ownership."
Chilingarov, by contrast, wasn't above fanning the flames of nationalism in public. "It's only natural that our dive had great patriotic impact, and of course we planted the flag, as Americans would do in a similar case. I don't understand why there is all this noise in the international community. If anyone wants to plant a flag down there, they're welcome to. There's plenty of room."
In Moscow, he told a group of well-wishers, "I don't give a damn what all these foreign politicians … are saying about this. If someone doesn't like this, let them go down themselves and try to put something there. Russia must win. Russia has what it takes to win. The Arctic has always been Russian."
Putin's successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, put to rest any lingering doubts over Russia's aspirations in the Arctic in a 2009 speech to Russia's Security Council: "This is our responsibility, and simply our direct duty, to our descendants. We must surely, and for the long-term future, secure Russia's interests in the Arctic."
The New Race for the Arctic Waters
While McKay and others might see Chilingarov's flag as anachronistic, they cannot ignore the competition now underway for control of the Arctic.
Arctic land regions were divided among state powers centuries ago. The current race is for dominion over the waters and ice of the Arctic, especially the resources that might lie beneath the ocean floor. The Arctic Ocean is "the last piece of non-jurisdictional real estate on the planet," as one journalist wrote.
The scramble for the Arctic involves five nations that have a claim to the Arctic Ocean through the UN Law of the Sea, now known as the A-5: Russia, Canada, the U.S., Denmark (via Greenland), and Norway.
Three other countries, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland, have territory in the Arctic Circle but with no Arctic Ocean coastline, they have no treaty claim to the ocean. The A-5 plus these three form the core of the Arctic Council.
Most have made recent moves to shore up or enhance their interests in the Arctic and to delineate international boundaries of control. But Canada and especially Russia have been the most active and thoughtful. The United States, by contrast, has been slowest off the blocks.
Canada held its largest ever military exercises in its northern regions in 2011, is investing in Arctic patrol ships, and has announced plans for a new deep-water port at Nanisivik. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has led a public relations campaign to remind the world of Canada's historic and current interests in the Arctic, carrying out regular summer trips to the north.
Norwegian oil companies have been rapidly expanding their drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean, and Norway too has significantly boosted its military presence in the Arctic. In 2008, it took part in a NATO training exercise in which a fictional country called "Northland" seized offshore oil rigs in the Arctic. Russia was not amused.
Denmark has expanded its military budget for the Arctic and worries that this race will accelerate demands for independence from Greenland. In 2009, the U.S. Coast Guard began to speak of a policy shift from "scientific research" to "security and sovereignty" in the area.
Three recent events have accelerated interest in the Arctic region on the part of all of these countries: global climate change in the Arctic region and the melting of sea ice; the promise of extraordinary economic gain from ocean-floor resources such as fossil fuels and minerals and from global shipping across open Arctic waters; and finally, the regulations of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS; also known as LOST, for Law of the Sea Treaty).
The relative response of the five different participants to these three processes—and particularly Russia's assertive actions in the region—has a lot to do with each country's historic relationship to the Arctic region.
Since at least the fifteenth century, Russia (much like Canada) has been an active, self-consciously Arctic nation. The current competition is reawakening a profound Russian connection to the Arctic.
As the historian John McCannon has written, "for as long as Russia has existed as a country, and particularly during the twentieth century, the Arctic has occupied a place of prominence in its national development."
Arctic territory makes up in the range of 25% of the Russian landmass, holds a disproportionately large part of the country's natural resources, and was strategically important during the Cold War, when the Arctic space represented the closest point between the U.S. and the USSR.
But it is in the cultural realm that the Arctic has come to capture the Russian imagination. Polar explorers—especially the Soviet-era pioneers from the 1930s, who led the world in Arctic exploration—hold a fame and popularity unmatched elsewhere in the world.
Chilingarov, in his recent exploits, harkens back to the days when Russians were path breakers in Arctic exploration, development, and derring-do. With similar pride and patriotism, today's Russian Arctic specialists aspire to lead the world into the Arctic era of the twenty-first century, with its resource wealth and strategic advantage.
Heroes of the Arctic: A Russian Love Story
Despite the many contemporary incentives in staking an Arctic claim, Russia's forward policy in its northern waters is not solely the result of recent events. Its long and deep connection to the frozen north helps to explain why Russia has exhibited a much greater vigor than the other countries in the race, despite the benefits at stake for all involved.
Before the space race and the race under the oceans, there was the race to explore the far extremes of the planet, from its frozen poles to its highest peaks. The Russians who explored (and explore) the Arctic reached an enduring celebrity status, especially during the Soviet period and even when the expeditions ended in disaster.
Russia's Great Northern Expedition of the early 18th century was the greatest scientific expedition in scope and size that the world had seen to that time and the first illustrious chapter in the story of formal Russian Arctic exploration. One contingent mapped and explored the navigability of the Arctic shoreline, with trade and strategic goals in mind, others gathered volumes of scientific data, and others still went in search of the North American continent (making Vitus Bering a household name).
But in the 1920s and 1930s, the cult of the Arctic and the Arctic hero took off. It was personified in Otto Shmidt—whose resume was filled with seminal achievements, honors, and global renown—and also the Soviet Union's Arctic pilots. For their record-breaking flights over the Arctic region, they received international acclaim and, in the Soviet Union, rose to a level of stardom only enjoyed by the likes of Charles Lindbergh in the United States.
For Shmidt, his rapid rise to Arctic superstardom began with the 1932 expedition of the shipSibiryakov that proved the single-season navigability of the Northeast Passage—or, as the Russians call it, the Northern Sea Route (NSR).
Dreams of the Northeast and Northwest passages (the latter across Canada's north coast) to transport goods from Europe to Asia through the Arctic Ocean had tantalized European leaders and adventurers for centuries, and led many explorers unsuccessfully into the unforgiving frozen north.
Since the 17th century, Russian explorers set out to navigate their northern shores only to see their shallow, small wood vessels crushed into kindling by the moving ice.
With the advent of steam and steel, Swede Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld first crossed the Northeast Passage in 1878, but required more than one sailing season to make it across.
Finally in 1932, during a relatively ice-free summer, Russian sailors aboard the Sibiryakov, led by Shmidt and Captain Vladimir Voronin, made it across the NSR in a single sailing season for the first time in recorded history.
The Cheliuskin Rescue
Following the success of the Sibiryakov, Shmidt then led the Cheliuskin mission, which was to traverse the same route with the goal of further substantiating the economic viability of the NSR. The Cheliuskin voyage remains today one of the most dramatic rescue missions in Russia's history.
For reasons that remain unknown, the ship was of decidedly un-Arctic design. Not an icebreaker, it had a wide, thin, square hull. It was probably used because the vessel was large and inexpensive, but it was a huge gamble for the savings.
Despite the substantial shortcomings of the vessel, the voyagers embarked on July 12, 1933. By mid-October, the ship was trapped in ice. Although they considered leaving the vessel and travelling over the ice to safety, the crew decided to remain aboard. Anxious leaders in Moscow hoped that the ice would eventually flow out to the open Pacific Ocean and free the ship.
By February 1934, the ice imprisoning the vessel began to crush its hull. The crew practiced evacuation drills, and their preparation paid off. During the two hours or so it took the ship to sink, all the gear the explorers would need to survive in the Arctic was unloaded. Though one crew member perished in the sinking, the remaining 104 people were left stranded on the Arctic ice.
Time was of the essence if the survivors were to be rescued, and the authorities chose to attempt a never-before air rescue in the Arctic.
In March, aviator Alexander Liapidevsky touched down at Camp Shmidt—as the settlement was christened—on a primitive airstrip made on the ice by the stranded crew. By April 13, Shmidt flew out with the last of those on board.
The Cheliuskin rescue made the Arctic explorers and pilots into national heroes and global celebrities, and deeply embedded the Russian fascination with the Arctic. The fanfare in the press turned a brave and ambitious, but otherwise unspectacular and ill-fated, mission into a tale of national triumph.
They became symbols of the excellence of the Soviet Union, and they were highly decorated with medals and honors. On May Day, pictures of them were held up alongside of likenesses of Lenin, Stalin, and Mikhail Kalinin. Even in the U.S., the New York Timesdescribed the events as a "brilliant chapter in the history of human struggles against Far Northern elements."
Shmidt travelled through the U.S., speaking on national radio networks and meeting with eminent figures including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
North Pole-1: Technical Achievement and National Competition
In the wake of Cheliuskin, Shmidt and his fellow Arctic explorers and scientists embarked on a series of daring and groundbreaking Arctic projects. These included the establishment of the world's first research base on the Arctic ice, North Pole-1—from which recent North Pole stations are direct descendants—and a program of "first" trans-polar flights by the Soviet Union's daring pilots.
The technical and scientific achievements of the Soviet Union's Arctic endeavors in the 1930s fed the national fascination with the Arctic. Their exploits and scientific triumphs became a yardstick of the Soviet Union's eminence under the Stalinist regime, just as they are in today's Russia.
Conceived by Shmidt, the idea for North-Pole-1, was, from its inception, about unique, technological brilliance.
By the time the mission was underway in 1937, the race to reach the pole had been over for decades, at least outside of Soviet borders. The last trip to the pole occurred in 1909, when the American Robert Peary claimed to have been the first to reach it.
North-Pole-1 would have a decidedly different focus. If the explorers could not be the first to travel to the North Pole, they would be the ones to do it in the grandest technological and scientific fashion.
Their mission was two-tiered. First, Shmidt would arrive at the pole by way of aircraft. Though the feat of flying over the pole had been achieved, the prospect of landing an aircraft there had yet to be attempted.
Second, the mission would establish the first research station at the North Pole. The station would start operation at the North Pole but as the ice moved over time, it would gradually drift towards the Atlantic, where the scientists would be retrieved by boat.
In May 1937, Shmidt and his crew landed at the North Pole as planned and began constructing their weather-monitoring station.
The mission was immediately given worldwide media attention. A contemporary New York Times article covering the event emphasized the speed and foresight with which the Soviets had set up their base for research, their breaking of records, and their "great contribution to world science."
Soviet sources were also quick to draw comparison to their successful employment of technology for science and peace. Their air flights to the North Pole stood in stark contrast to the Nazi German employment of warplanes to demolish Spanish cities. The disastrous case of the Hindenburg was also contrasted against the North-Pole-1 victory.
With the Cheliuskin rescue and the landing at the North Pole, the miracle of flight was already becoming a central component of the Soviet Arctic epic. Trans-polar flights from Russia to America further transformed the Soviet Union's stable of brave pilots—including Valery Chkalov, Sigismund Levanevsky, and Mikhail Gromov—into national and worldwide celebrities.
On June 8, 1937, Chkalov became the first to transverse the pole, flying more than 5,288 miles over a period of 63 hours from Moscow to Vancouver, Washington. In doing so, he had set a world record and completed the first trans-polar flight between Russia and America in human history.
Mikhail Gromov followed up on this success by flying 6,305 miles to San Jacinto, California.
Though the final flight, of Levanevsky, ended with a disastrous crash, Russia's aviation exploits remained symbols of personal heroism and national achievement.
Arctic researchers, explorers, and scientists have remained prominent public figures ever since. In the surge of Russian Arctic research efforts over the last decade, there are clear and conscious echoes of the heroism and adventure of the Soviet Arctic in the 1930s.
Referring to the 2003 establishment of North Pole-32, Putin declared: "It is very important that after a break of 12 years, Russian scientists return to the North Pole to continue the remarkable traditions of the legendary polar explorers."
Chilingarov's Arctic endeavors (and showmanship) and the reestablishment of the North Pole drift research stations (now North Pole-39) reflect the ongoing Russian attachment to Arctic research and exploration, the lionization of the Arctic explorer (even in catastrophe), and the special place that the Arctic holds in the Russian heart and spirit.
Adieu Polar Bears: Climate Change and the Arctic's Disappearing Ice
Global climate change offers a rapidly changing landscape for today's generation of Russian Arctic specialists, and is affecting the Arctic region disproportionately. The most recent reports indicate that the Arctic is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet.
Over roughly the past 20 years, the summer ice sheet's cover shrunk by more than 20 percent and has thinned significantly. According to a 2009 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report, that decrease is expected to at least double by 2050.
A recent report commissioned by Lloyds noted: "In September 2011, the month when Arctic sea ice extent is typically at its lowest, ice coverage fell to a low of 4.33 million square kilometers (1.67 million square miles), some 2.38 million square kilometers less than the 1979–2000 average."
Predictions are constantly changing—and vary from one scientific group to another—but observations consistently show an acceleration of the melting of sea ice far greater than anyone imagined even a few years ago.
A 2004 report compiled by 250 scientists at the request of the Arctic Council stated that Arctic sea ice could completely disappear as early as 2070. Many studies now suggest that the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free for a portion of the summer as soon as 2030.
Just this past June, scientists witnessed in the Arctic an "enormous, off-the-charts" bloom of phytoplankton—something so unusual that scientists, according to Paul Bontempi of NASA, "never, ever could have anticipated [it] in a million years."
Such unpredictability, rather than reining in aspirations in the Arctic, has created even more incentive for the five countries in the race to the Arctic.
An Ocean of Riches?
The A-5 countries have begun seeking profits from the disappearing ice. The opportunities for economic gain appear clearest in resource development (especially extractable resources such as oil and natural gas) and shipping.
According to 2008 U.S. Geological Survey data, the Arctic contains some 412.2 billion barrels of oil and oil equivalent: an "estimated 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil, 1,670 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of technically recoverable natural gas liquids."
These amounts represent about 30% of the estimated undiscovered natural gas (approximately equal to Russia's proven natural gas reserves today) and 13% of the global estimated undiscovered oil (about three times the U.S.'s proven oil reserves currently).
Russian sources put the resource potential much higher than the USGS: Arctic-Ocean territory claimed by the Russian government could contain as much as 568 billion barrels of oil and oil equivalent, they believe. While this data is only speculative, it is more than twice the oil reserves of 260 billion barrels in Saudi Arabia, the owners of the world's largest proven reserves.
In 2007, the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies reinforced these higher numbers, asserting that "Russia's extractable offshore hydrocarbon resources are approximately 100 billion tonnes (about 740 billion BOE), 80 percent of which are located in the Arctic."
These high estimates of energy potential make it clear that the melting ice might make this region into a new Gulf of Mexico, ripe for offshore drilling. Experts also believe that the Arctic region contains diamonds, gold, tin, manganese, nickel, lead and platinum, among other minerals.
And the irony is lost on no one that fossil fuels—a primary culprit of global climate change—will be a windfall of the melting ice.
Shipping: The Northern Sea Route
The potential wealth of the Arctic also lies in the possibility of a revolution in shipping.
For Russia, the decrease in Arctic summer ice has begun to open up the NSR for a larger volume of transport over a longer part of the summer (now eight or more weeks of the year). Shipping traffic rose rapidly in 2010 and 2011, with another likely increase in 2012.
Travel along the NSR (as across Canada's Northwest Passage) saves an average of about 5,000 miles compared to current routes.
To take one example, travel from Murmansk in Russia to Yokohama, Japan would save approximately 20.5 days of travel via the NSR versus taking the existing route through the Suez Canal (only 5750 nautical miles versus 12,730 Nm)
When the Vladimir Tikhonov made its historic voyage through the NSR in summer of 2011—at 162,000 tonnes, by far the largest ship ever to navigate the northern waters—it reduced the distance travelled from Murmansk to Thailand by 40% and cut off about a week from the time it would have taken to travel the usual route through the Suez Canal.
If summer Arctic ice were to disappear entirely, the passage that would then open up directly over the North Pole would save an average of 8,000 miles.
Although commercially viable trade across the NSR is likely as many as 15-20 years away, Russia is already asserting its claim to the northern seaways and the ocean's economic benefits.
The NSR would make it cheaper and more efficient for Russia to move its mineral and fossil fuel resources, making the Arctic a "global energy corridor" or a "floating pipeline" of Russian oil and gas, as analysts have described it.
Russia is also investing heavily in shipping services and infrastructure in the north in the hopes of reaping profit from others transporting their goods through the region: through levies, fees, permits, shipping re-supply stations, and ice breaking (with average escort cost through the Arctic currently at $200,000).
Russia is banking on shippers around the world realizing the economic benefit of the NSR. "I want to stress the importance of the Northern Sea Route as an international transport artery that will rival traditional trade lanes in service fees, security and quality," Putin said in 2011. "States and private companies who choose the Arctic trade routes will undoubtedly reap economic advantages."
The opening of regular navigation across the NSR would also permit Russia more easily to defend its extensive coastline and eastern shores by allowing the navy to move ships from one end to the other without having to go the long way around through Suez.
There are obstacles to the northern shipping route, however. Even with rapid warming, there still remains ice cover for large parts of the year, requiring expensive ice breakers, and the northern ice currents are legendarily difficult to navigate. Consumer markets do not tolerate the uncertainty of exactly when the shipping season will start.
And there are already strong environmental movements focused on protecting the relatively pristine Arctic waters from the oil spills and other pollution problems that are sure to follow in the wake of increased transport.
LOST at Sea
Russian interest in the Arctic Sea, as for the other four A-5 states, has also been pushed forward at an accelerated pace because of the UNCLOS treaty and its provisions, which were adopted in 1982 after a decade of negotiations. Among the many provisions in this "constitution for the oceans," the treaty established just how far the jurisdictional rights of each sovereign state extend into the ocean.
All states are granted a 12 Nm territorial limit and a 200 Nm (370 km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ), in which a state has rights over the water, fish, and any seabed resources.
UNCLOS also permits countries to extend their EEZ seaward to a maximum of 350 Nm if the continental shelf stretching out from the country reaches beyond the 200-Nm limit. UNCLOS defines the continental shelf as the natural prolongation of the land of a particular country that is submerged but not part of the ocean basin.
The treaty also established the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) to examine states' claims, making geologists lead players in debates over ocean jurisdiction.
When UNCLOS came into force in 1994 after Guyana became the 60th country to ratify (currently 162 nations and the European Community, but not the United States, have ratified), only the A-5 countries had claims in the Arctic Ocean under the treaty. The North Pole itself and a great deal of the area around it were initially left unclaimed, an international zone.
After ratifying in 1997, the Russian government and scientific community submitted a petition to the CLCS in 2001 that proposed a massive increase in Russia's claim.
The report asserted that the underwater, 1,800 km Lomonosov Ridge was part of Russia's continental shelf, an extension of the Siberian shelf, and that Russia's claimable limits should be delineated from this geographic formation.
The CLCS neither accepted nor denied the Russian claim but asked for further research and a revised resubmission: a request that prompted the 2007 expedition that dropped the flag, among many others over the past few years. Russia is expected to resubmit in 2012.
The debate over just what defines a continental shelf geologically has huge ramifications. If the Russian claim ultimately succeeds, it would result in the accession of more than 1.2 million square kilometers to Russian Arctic sovereignty. Or, as the Oxford Institute noted in 2007, "If Moscow is successful in its bid for more Arctic territories, its hydrocarbon share could increase by at least 10 billion tonnes (74 BOE) or two-thirds of the global annual energy consumption."
The Russian 2007 expedition found, perhaps not unexpectedly, "that the crust structure of the Lomonosov Ridge corresponds to the world analogues of the continental crust, and it is therefore part of the Russian Federation's adjacent continental shelf."
The Russian claim is but the first of many coming out of the A-5 countries. Each country has a decade after ratification to submit claims for revised delimitation of sovereignty.
However, there is an increasing rush to get the claims in for fear that the early bird will get the worm. The Russians had hoped that by submitting early, the boundaries of their EEZ might have been settled before anyone else thought to get in the race. The fact that the United States still has not ratified UNCLOS has left them out of any debates and deliberations.
Both Canada and Denmark, which have until 2013 and 2014 respectively to submit their petitions to CLCS, claim that the Lomonosov ridge is in fact an extension of their continental shelves, and they have sent their own teams of scientists to gather proof. Canada has also indicated that it will assert that the Alpha ridge is part of their continental shelf off Ellsmere Island. In 2006, Norway too handed in an official submission for reconfiguration of its Arctic Ocean sovereignty.
At the same time, there are other contestations among other A-5 countries. Canada and Denmark continue to spar politely over which controls tiny, uninhabited Hans Island. The U.S. and Canada remain locked in a debate whether the Northwest Passage represents Canada's internal waters or an international strait.
Since the early 1970s, the U.S. has flouted Canadian sovereignty claims to these waters by sending through its vessels (especially submerged nuclear submarines during the Cold War). Now, the question also revolves around shipping and who might have greater control of the Beaufort Sea and its potential hydrocarbon riches.
The CLCS is not likely to resolve these issues any time soon, considering its backlog of submissions and the appeals and arbitration that will surely follow.
Cooperation or Conflict in the Arctic Future
For all of the potential international tensions of this race for the Arctic—and the chest beating surrounding the 2007 flag planting at the North Pole—cooperation seems a more likely future path for the A-5 in the delimitation of sovereignty in the Arctic.
Given the potential for all A-5 countries to profit from the changing Arctic and the very significant difficulties and vast expense of resource extraction and shipping, there is incentive to work together to the mutual profit of all.
As the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted in a 2012 report: "a growing military and paramilitary presence in the Arctic may be beneficial for regional stability rather than detrimental. This is because the various littoral countries already share strategic goals in the High North: to expand trade, protect the environment, extract resources and police new sea areas."
Russia' ambassador for Arctic Affairs, Anton Vasiliev, pushes the cooperation approach. In a recent comment, he played off the forbidding climate, saying, "You cannot survive alone in the Arctic: this is perhaps true for countries as well as individuals."
So far, all parties have been willing to work through existing transnational legal structures and organizations. They are content to follow the rules of the UNCLOS treaty, and are not acting unilaterally. The Arctic Council's first binding agreement was a multinational search and rescue protocol.
Notably, the possibility of great riches has offered incentive for countries to work out their differences. In 2010, after forty years of quarreling, Norway and Russia agreed to a new border in the Barents Sea that will facilitate oil and gas work for both countries.
In April, 2012, Russia's Rosneft completed terms with ExxonMobil to invest as much as $500 billion in developing offshore reserves in Russian Arctic sea areas. Russia recently granted permission for the first shipment of liquefied natural gas from Norway to travel across the NSR.
Each country has different skills and resources to share: Russia, for example, will benefit from access to Norwegian oil companies' state-of-the-art deep-water drilling technologies, while Norway will rely on Russia for access to the NSR to transport its hydrocarbons east.
Several countries are working together in bilateral research expeditions to explore the geological structures of the ocean floor. Even the 2007 MIR descent to the seabed with its Russian flag had American, Australian, and Swedish backing, organization, and participants.
Moreover, all the A-5 countries have a vested interest in maintaining the cooperative terms of UNCLOS to ensure that no other countries can push their way into the potential Arctic bonanza.
The hubbub following the Russian flag planting led to the Ilulissat Declaration (2008), named for the town in Greenland where representatives of the A-5 met. One of the chief goals of the meeting was to ensure "the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims" and that no other countries try to change the rules of the game.
The European Union, certain African countries, and others have argued that the Arctic is a unique situation and should not be governed by UNCLOS; that the ocean should be protected under international ownership because of the rich and generally pristine waters.
In response, the host of the Ilulissat conference, Per Stig Møller, challenged "the assumption by some that there is a need for a new legal regime for the Arctic Ocean. I do not see such a need, as we have international law, we have the Law of the Sea, which already provide us with a comprehensive legal regime."
In the end, cooperation or not, it bears noting that in this "race for the Arctic" few leaders, analysts, and investors are thinking much about the primary stakeholders in the Arctic world: the indigenous peoples who have inhabited the Arctic region for generations and the native fauna and flora. The destruction of the habitats and cultures of these people and other living creatures would be a high price to pay for whatever hydrocarbons and northern shipping the warming Arctic might offer.
Books and Articles
Terence Armstrong, The Northern Sea Route: Soviet Exploitation of the North East Passage (Cambridge: Scott Polar Research Institute/Cambridge University Press, 1952)
James Astill, "The Melting North: Special Report, the Arctic," The Economist (June 16, 2012).
Brian Bonhomme, Russian Exploration, from Siberia to Space: A History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2012)
Lawson W. Brigham, ed., The Soviet Maritime Arctic (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991)
Janice Clavell and Jeff Noakes, Acts of Occupation: Canada and Arctic Sovereignty, 1918-1925 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010)
Richard Ellis, On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)
Charles Emmerson and Glada Lahn, Arctic Opening: Opportunity and Risk in the High North (Lloyd's and Chatham House, 2012)
McKenzie Funk, "Arctic Landgrab," National Geographic (May 2009): 104-121
Jessa Gamble, "Arctic Landgrab," Scientific American Earth 3.0 v.19, no. 1 (2009): 58-63.
Roger Howard, The Arctic Gold Rush: The New Race for Tomorrow's Natural Resources (New York: Continuum, 2009)
John McCannon, Red Arctic: Polar Exploration and the Myth of the North in the Soviet Union, 1932-1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)
Henry Pollack, A World without Ice (New York: Avery, 2009)
Richard Sale and Eugene Potapov, The Scramble for the Arctic: Ownership, Exploitation, and Conflict in the Far North (London: Francis Lincoln, Ltd, 2010)
Alex Shoumatoff, "The Arctic Oil Rush," Vanity Fair (May 2008), 231-239, 270-275.
Glyn Williams, Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009)
"Russia Returns to Arctic," BBC News (2003 April 27). [January 13, 2009]
"Russia plants flag under North Pole," BBC News (2007, August 2). [January 13, 2009]
http://goodcleantech.pcmag.com/science/282153-oil-hungry-russia-claims-the-arctic [April 14, 2012]
http://www.energytribune.com/articles.cfm/1024/The-Great-Arctic-Game-Russias-Attempt-to-Claim-the-Arctics-Vast-Energy-Resources [April 14, 2012]
http://www.npr.org/2011/08/20/139754902/trying-to-unravel-the-mysteries-of-arctic-warming [April 14, 2012]
http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=1980&from=rss_home/#.T_i75_U3gaw [April 14, 2012]
http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2008/3049/fs2008-3049.pdf [April 14, 2012]
http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/andrewosborn/100055846/for-vladimir-putin-the-arctic-is-far-more-than-a-natural-resource/ [April 14, 2012]
http://www.energytribune.com/articles.cfm/1024/The-Great-Arctic-Game-Russias-Attempt-to-Claim-the-Arctics-Vast-Energy-Resources [April 14, 2012]
"Global Warming Puts Arctic on Thin Ice," (November 22, 2005). [February 20, 2009]
Struck, Doug "NOAA Scientists Say Arctic Ice is Melting Faster than Expected," Washington Post website (2007 September 7). [February 20, 2009]
"About Arctic Council," (2007 October 22)
Borgerson, Scott (2008). Arctic Meltdown. Foreign Affairs , Retrieved February 21, 2009
Walton, Marsha (2009, January 2). Countries in tug-of-war over Arctic resources.
"The Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST) – Background" [January 20, 2009]
"Putin's Arctic invasion: Russia lays claim to the North Pole - and all its gas, oil, and diamonds," (2007, June 29).
"Russia's Putin says Arctic trade route to rival Suez."