Ahhh the arctic. One of the few remaining areas in the world virtually untouched by human development. Its pristine lands and waterways are home to nearly 130 species of mammals alone, including the walrus and the polar bear, along with countless other species of vertebrates and invertebrates.
But all that could change sooner than we previously thought. Some of the latest climate models developed by the US Department of Energy, show that the Arctic will be ice-free during the summer as early as 2016. This opens up a vast new area of unfrozen, unclaimed ocean. And there’s nothing like a chunk of unclaimed territory to bring out the conquistador in all of us.
In 2007, a Russian submarine expedition took the Columbus approach to claiming new territory and planted the Russian flag on the ocean floor, symbolically claiming the arctic seabed for Russia.
This publicity stunt by the Russians kicked off similar such stunts by other Artic-bordering nations. The Canadian Prime Minister set off on a “sovereignty tour” of the Arctic while the Science Minister of Denmark stated that preliminary geographic evidence indicated that Denmark owned the North Pole. This claim was contested by Canada near the end of last year when it stated that it had the legitimate claim to the North Pole. A day after the Canada made the announcement, President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced an increase the Russian military presence in the region to protect Russia’s “national and strategic interests”. Sound familiar?
But why does everyone seem so eager to own this frigid ocean in the first place? Here’s why.
There is a huge amount of oil (nearly a quarter of the worlds undiscovered oil) in the Arctic, but it has been irrelevant until recently, as exploiting these resources was not financially viable. However, with a warming global climate, and the ice-free summers that they could bring, vast portions of the Arctic Circle could be open to drilling. In fact, in the summer of 2012 Royal Dutch Shell obtained permits to drill oil wells north of Alaska in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Though they were unsuccessful because of an unusually cold spring, this is just a sign of what is yet to come.
The current claims to the Arctic Circle stem from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the UN agreement that allows a country to exclusive rights to resources up to 230 miles beyond its coastline. The one exception is in the case that the continental shelf extends beyond this 230 mile benchmark. If this is the case, a country can make a claim to resources up to the edge of the continental shelf. It is claims to these continental shelves that are driving the current land grab. The current contest is very well illustrated in a map made by the New York Times.
Where does the United States fit in all this? Interestingly enough, the United States has not ratified UNCLOS. This means that though we have a legitimate claim to territory beyond our exclusive economic zone, we cannot claim it since we are a non-signatory. We also have a more limited say in whether or not other countries can make claims to specific waters.
Why haven’t we ratified it? It comes down to an issue of sovereignty. We don’t like people telling us what to do, and Senators on both sides of the isle believe that ratification of the treaty would give the United Nations more power at the expense of US sovereignty. Furthermore they argue that most of the sizeable reserves are already included within our exclusive economic zone.
Regardless of whether or not we enter the land grab, it seems like in the not so distant future oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean could become a reality. As members of the international community, we need to seriously consider if the benefits of our activities in the region outweigh the risks those activities pose on the environment. The very reason those ice caps are melting is because we still haven’t been able to limit our consumption of fossil fuels. So, should we be allowed to exploit these pristine landscapes to further fuel an unsustainable and destructive habit? Just some food for thought.