“The Arctic is hot,” says Gustaf Lind, the Swedish ambassador who will chair the Arctic Council meeting in Stockholm on March 28th-29th. The other members are America, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Russia, plus six non-voting representatives of indigenous Arctic peoples such as Sami and Inuit. he top of the world is warming roughly twice as fast as the rest of it: water in the Fram Strait, between Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, is roughly 3.5°C warmer than a century ago. When dark, absorptive seawater replaces bright, reflective ice, it retains more heat. That speeds global warming. Largely as a result, the Arctic now has less sea-ice, for the time of year, than for millennia. Most scientists expect the Arctic Ocean to begin to be largely ice-free in summer sometime between 2020 and 2050.
As the ice retreats, rich Arctic deposits of oil, gas and other minerals become accessible. High commodity prices make them lucrative. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic has around a quarter of the world’s undiscovered and recoverable oil and gas reserves.
New commercial trans-Arctic shipping routes will sharply cut the distance between Europe and Asia. In 2011 a Russian supertanker, aided by two nuclear icebreakers, became the first such vessel to traverse the North-east Passage across the Arctic, hugging the Siberian coastline (Russians call it the “northern route”). Countries that ply global trade lanes, and make the ships that do, see the potential. China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore, plus Italy, have applied to join the Arctic Council as observers; so has the European Union.
That, too, has generated some heat. A Norwegian newspaper reported in January that Norway was threatening to block China’s bid for observer status, part of a row that started when the Oslo-based Nobel prize committee awarded the 2010 peace prize to a jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo. All sides deny that (and Norway, like the other Nordic countries, is generally an enthusiast for enlargement). But officials in Oslo are not the only ones with mixed feelings about Chinese membership. Russia, which owns half the Arctic coastline and the lion’s share of the region’s resources, is also reluctant. Canada, which displays distinctive robustness on Arctic issues, is not minded to admit the EU, which tiresomely bemoans the annual seal slaughter.
Sweden says it wants to settle the observer issue by May 2013. The ostensible ground for delay is over the newcomers’ role. But it already seems that this will be limited to watching and listening—as it is for the six existing observers: countries like Britain and Poland with long traditions of Arctic activity. No Arctic country is in a hurry to expand the club. Despite excited predictions of a dangerous scramble for Arctic resources, the region’s sovereignty is fairly clearly defined. The Arctic is the polar opposite of Antarctica, figuratively as well as literally. It is not a disputed land mass surrounded by ocean. It is an ocean plus some almost entirely delimited land. It has no need of an international treaty like the one that governs Antarctica.
A handful of disputes rumble on: about a few rocks located between Greenland (a Danish fief) and Canada; and between Canada and America over the status of the North-west Passage shipping route. A bigger row could yet erupt over continental shelves, most of which are being slowly delimited under the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea. But all these squabbles are between the Arctic countries themselves, not with outsiders.
The members think their club is working rather well as it is. Founded in 1996, partly to promote joint scientific research, it focuses on activities such as pollution, marine conservation and mapping. It does this well. Last year members signed their first legally binding agreement, on search-and-rescue missions. Next will be a deal on responding to oil spills. Russia, which caused a flurry of concern in 2007, when an explorer called Artur Chilingarov planted his country’s flag under the North Pole, is now oozing amity. In 2011 it ended one of the Arctic’s longest-running disputes, by reaching agreement over its maritime border with Norway.
Reassured that they have little to squabble over, Arctic countries are finding that the enormous costs of research, policing and energy exploration are better shared. Hence, for example, the eagerness of Russia’s state-owned energy companies to form joint ventures, such as that agreed last year between Rosneft and Exxon Mobil in the Kara Sea. The development of Arctic shipping-lanes will also be made easier with good regional relations: there is talk of either Iceland or Norway developing a transshipment port to serve Russia’s north-eastern route.
The message is clear: welcome to the new world of the warming Arctic. But remember who runs it.
Arctic Politics: Cosy amid the thaw, Economist, March 24,2012, at 61