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Melting Arctic Ice Sets Off ‘Race To The Bottom’ Over Arctic Resources

Mosaic of the Arctic

For some, the melting of the Arctic ice cap serves as a troubling precursor to the tumultuous future consequences of human-induced global warming. But for others, it is an opportunity to explore uncharted territory and exploit untapped resources.

At least that’s what seems to be the message from the latest meeting of the Arctic council in May 2011.

The meeting was held in Nuuk, Greenland, where all the Arctic-bordering countries assembled to discuss the future of Arctic territory. Included in this meeting were Canada, the United States, Russia, and the Nordic countries. For the first time in history, the ice has melted enough in the Arctic ice cap to allow mining and exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean. It is estimated the Arctic is the host of huge oil and gas deposits as well as numerous rare minerals and elements.

However, negotiations over potential development of the Arctic have been hampered by discrepancies over Arctic sovereignty. Since the Arctic was uninhabitable and inaccessible for human development for most of recorded history, most countries did not worry about which parts of the Arctic belonged to whom. Consequently, a review of historical documents reveals that previous Arctic sovereignty was virtually guided by a hodgepodge of haphazard geographical sketches and ambiguous international treaties. But now that huge expanses of Arctic resources have become available, the Arctic countries have decided to make territorial boundaries, shall we say, a little more explicit.

As can be predicted, most of the Arctic council countries disagree as to where territorial lines should be drawn. So far, negotiations over Arctic Sovereignty have been perforated by various incidences of political one-upmanship and megaphone diplomacy.

In 2007, Russian polar explorer Artur Chilingarov imbedded a Russian flag in the Arctic seabed to “prove the North Pole [was] an extension of the Russian landmass.” Canada was furious at such an audacious move in a territory it viewed as its own.

And of course the United States arrived at the latest Arctic council meeting with a formidable brigade of political heavyweights such as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton and secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar. Their message was clear: if Arctic development was to proceed, the United States would be taking an active role.

The latest political battles over the development of resources in the Arctic are a worrying sign that some of the world’s biggest players may be unable to disentangle themselves from an unsustainable trajectory of development. They are going into the Arctic to profit from untapped oil and gas reserves, which will further engrain fossil fuel consumption in the world’s energy systems. Rather than seeing the melting of the Arctic ice cap as a consequence of global warming brought on by a century of intense fossil fuel use, they see it as an opportunity for further development.

And as the planet continues to warm, areas of permafrost (land which is supposed to be permanently frozen) thaw in the Arctic, thus releasing the greenhouse gas methane and compounding the effects of human-induced emissions of CO₂.

Is there any stopping large-scale exploitation of resources in the Arctic? Perhaps, but it will require a complete 180 degree turn in the Arctic council’s view of the Arctic and an exceedingly vocal general public.

What are your thoughts on the latest developments in the Arctic?

Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: Mosaic of the Arctic, June 30, 2011

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