Nations are eyeing the Arctic, formerly an undeveloped area protected by thick layers of ice, snow and bitter temperatures, now that climate change is nipping away at nature’s obstacles.
It has spawned what amounts to a new cold war as countries race to plunder a treasure trove of oil and minerals. Environmentalists fear it will destroy the fragile Arctic ecosystem. Because they take a long time to grow and/or reproduce, any activity that disrupts plant, bird, animal and fish life is damaging.
Since the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere on Earth, it is considered an emerging frontier and the pioneer prize is territory rich in fish, oil, gas and minerals.
To see how climate change and rich deposits make the Arctic such an attractive proposition, one need look no further than Canada’s Baffin Island.
The fifth-largest island in the world sits on iron ore, arguably the world’s richest and most abundant source.
On the island is the Mary River mine with enough iron ore to last for generations. It is already being mined and production will increase as infrastructure grows – a material handling system, a crusher and railcars for unloading.
But there are more opportunities than just mineral deposits. The famed Northwest Passage, where ice is melting, will move from history pages to finally become reality as one of the prime shipping routes. It will also be a tourist destination as travellers flock to the Arctic to gaze upon majestic scenery populated with narwhal, walrus, seals, ox, and the Arctic white fox that lives farther north than any other land animal.
There’s fish like the delicious Arctic Char for the anglers. Hunters and naturalists will be drawn by the vast array of animals, including polar bears, reindeer and moose.
So at least eight nations have queued up for battleground Arctic: Canada, Denmark (includes Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. All are members of the Arctic Council. The council is supposed to foster co-operation, co-ordination and interaction among members, but that is the ideal, not reality. So rich is the prize that even China has elbowed into the fray, calling itself a near-Arctic state that wants to create a ‘Polar Silk Road.’
And Russia upped the ante in this high-stakes game by putting its first floating nuclear power plant in operation Dec. 19, 2019. Built at a cost of $US232 million and 10 years in construction, the Akademik Lomonosov sits off the tundra along the Arctic coast to northeastern Siberia.
Environmentalists warn it is a potential “nuclear Titanic” with fuel stored onboard and a leak could seriously impact the fragile Arctic.
The United States, which experts suggest has lagged in Arctic development, is now primed to go.
The subject of climate change has had no place in the official political American vocabulary since Donald Trump became president. But that does not mean Americans want to mine the Arctic for its riches.
Trump has tried to reverse Barack Obama’s policy to allow oil drilling in the Arctic but so far has been stymied by the courts and fierce opposition.
Still, after decades of basically who cares, the aggressive interest and oil and gas investments in the Arctic by America’s traditional rivals – Russia and China – has caught the attention of the White House.
In May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signalled the new interest speaking at an Arctic Council meeting.
“This is America’s moment to stand up as an Arctic nation and for the Arctic’s future,” he said. “Because far from the barren backcountry that many thought it to be…the Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance.”
Many, such as scientists and native peoples, fear ice melts and the rapid changes in the Arctic. But for Pompeo, the glass is half full.
The reduction in ice makes it possible for cargo ships to use the Northwest Passage and he said the sea lanes could become the “21st Century Suez and Panama Canals.”
Speaking about Russia and China, Pompeo warned both against provocative actions such as military buildup.
“Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims?” he asked. “Do we want the fragile Arctic environment exposed to the same ecological devastation caused by China’s fishing fleet in the seas off its coast, or unregulated industrial activity in its own country? I think the answers are pretty clear.”
The race for the Arctic heated up in August 2007 when two Russian submersibles dove to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and planted a flag at the North Pole. Then Canadian foreign affairs minister Peter Mackay thought the stunt silly.
“This isn’t the 15th Century,” he said. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’”
But it could also be considered as the first symbolic shot in the cold war for the Arctic. And it is likely the environment will play second fiddle to the economic boom.