In the middle of September last month the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) – a research body based in United States reported that the ice extent in the Arctic Sea this year reached at the record low. According to NSIDC since March 20 to September 16 this year, the Arctic Ocean lost a total of 11.83 million square kilometers of ice – the largest seasonal loss of sea ice.
The Hydrology & Terrestrial Cryosphere section of the 2012 Arctic Report Card has also documented that between the period 2010-2011 the Arctic region as a result of surface melting and run off was characterized by a negative mass balance that means less snow and ice was gained while more snow and ice was lost.
The increasing air temperatures and loss of summer sea ice has invited growing human presence aiming from farming, cattle growing, fishing, oil and gas drilling to gaining strategic advantages in world’s most vulnerable region.
Bryan Walsh in TIME online states that the Arctic melt down in 2012 was lowest since 1979 following another similar news story by Susan Watts of BBC who has quoted Prof Peter Wadhams – the Cambridge University expert and stated that “The volume of ice in the summer is only a quarter of what it was 30 years ago and that’s really the prelude to this final collapse”.
Since the second half of last decade the geopolitics of Arctic region more or less has been defined by a new geo- energy era that has given the Arctic Ocean including the islands and Northern edges of the continental land masses of Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark and United States that are surrounding the North Pole – a greater strategic significance.
The core five countries joining the Arctic sea mentioned above and the other three- Iceland, Sweden and Finland in the Arctic Region – have constituted a preeminent regional body named Arctic Council. The Council has published a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of climate change on Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA) 2011.
The report has brought together the latest scientific knowledge about the changing state of the Arctic Cryosphere and larger impacts bringing upon the Arctic region and the world as well. According to the report the years 2005-2010 have been the warmest period in the region bringing tremendous changes in the Arctic landscape – the extent and duration of snow cover and sea ice that have decreased across the Arctic with rising temperatures.
The largest and most permanent bodies of ice in the Arctic – multiyear sea ice, mountain glaciers , ice caps and Greenland Ice Sheet have all been melting faster since 2000 than in the previous decade. That has contributed over 40 % of the global sea level rise of around 3 mm per year observed between 2003 and 2008. As a result of this global sea level is projected to rise up to 1.6 meter by the end of this century.
The report has predicted that the Arctic Ocean will become nearly ice free in summer within this century and more likely within the next thirty to forty years. All these will bring tremendous change in the ecology of arctic region, challenging the indigenous human civilizations, life cycle of wild lives, vegetation and sea mammals and the bio- diversity of the Arctic as a whole.
Similarly, this will inevitably bring most serious societal impacts with higher rise in sea level to damaging surges in sea storms directly affecting the millions of people in low lying coastal areas like Bangladesh, Shanghai, New York and Florida.
On the other hand the great cryospheric changes taking place in the Arctic region is opening up for tremendous economic activities along with those challenges. Some greater opportunities are emerging in a region where for months there will be no day light and for other months the sun will never set but move circling over the sky.
Scientific studies have estimated huge amount of world’s untapped oil and gas reserve followed by massive stock of high quality gold, diamond, plutonium and other rare earth minerals in the Arctic. As the ice recedes, it will open transpolar shipping routes across the Arctic Ocean that will reduce the distance between Europe and East Asia by more than 40 percent than to the current routes.
Militarization in the Arctic and Global Security
The Arctic region is estimated to contain some 15 percent of the world’s untapped oil and as much as 30 percent of the world’s natural gas reserve. Similarly it represents 22 percent of technically recoverable hydrocarbons. The increasing oil prices that is estimated to double in another 10 years will continue to drive for more advanced technology and resource mobilization in offshore drilling in Arctic waters than in the Strait of Hormuz, the South China Sea and the Caspian Basin.
Besides the growing economies of the developing countries and their huge middle class populations will make the oil and gas the most critical strategic commodities. This is making Arctic the geo-political as well as geo-energy hot-spots in decades to come.
A report published recently by Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) says – “Many of the Arctic states have begun to reexamine their military capabilities to operate in the Arctic region” from rebuilding their military forces to modernization and relocation of the military programs in an attempts geared up toward advanced combat capabilities rather than constabulary capacity. This has excited some other Arctic countries drawing up plans to begin powerful military presence in the region trailed by some multilateral organizations and non – Arctic states including China and Japan eying for new roles in the Arctic.
The C2ES has observed that because of its very early stage of security environment in the Arctic, it has remained an open question whether the emerging security environment in the Arctic will predominantly be cooperative or competitive. However, some of the states have strongly admitted that “they will defend their national interest in the region” by all means if necessary.
Quite naturally the melting of the Arctic ice has explored new shifts in geopolitics of the region that has been triggering up great power rivalry in terms of resources, routes, boundaries and military deployments. The new geopolitical shifts in the Arctic, which has strategically brought Europe and the East Coast of North America closer to East and South East Asia that itself pivots the global economic and military geography.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, during the Cold War most of the Arctic countries were divided in two belligerent camps – Soviet Union and Finland at one side, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and the United States at the other. Both the USSR and USA had deployed their nuclear tipped submarines in the Arctic waters to monitor each other’s naval operations and work as deterrent. But after cold war most of the military capabilities of the Arctic countries were dismantled or reduced to a large extent. During 90s the Arctic -the focal point of Cold war rivalry was neglected and almost forgotten.
But a report on Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) presented at a workshop supported by AMAP and Nordic Council of Ministers drew worldwide attention. In an attempt to research the problems of climate change in the Arctic and to sketch out a comprehensive and collaborative, international effort to address future challenges.
Russia in 2007 initiated a new militarization campaign in the Arctic by planting a rust proof titanium metal flag on the sea bed 4200 meter below the North Pole to mark its permanent claim to the Arctic. After positioning the flag the leader of the Russian mission’s leader, explorer and parliamentarian Artur Chilingarov, exclaimed “If a hundred or a thousand years from now someone goes down to where we were, they will see the Russian flag. . .”
In a security document released in June 2008, Russia claimed that it will mainly focus on sources of energy in Barents Sea, Arctic Region, and Caspian Sea and admitted that the struggle for hydrocarbon resources can be developed into a military confrontation as well. Taking considerations on these, Russia has announced plans to create an armored Arctic brigade of its own on the Kola Peninsula- located in the far northwest of Russia, almost completely to the north of the Arctic Circle.
Following Russia other Arctic coastal states have also developed their national security strategies and spelt out their political and security priorities. According to a recent report published by a reputed U.S. bipartisan foreign and defense policy think tank – Center for Strategic and International studies (CSIS), although these countries have touted their commitment to cooperative actions; they have bolstered their stronger military presence and capabilities that have invited complexities of competing national security interests – that is most likely to be heightened by the lack of any single coherent structures through which these interests and concerns could be effectively addressed.
Redrawing a New Geo-political, Geo-Energy and Geo-economic Map of the World
Norway on the other hand has planned to convert one of its High North battalions into a strong Arctic brigade comprising naval and Special Forces units. The Canadians have also developed similar plans for military deployment above the Arctic Circle. Similarly, while EU has expressed its intention to develop a governance mechanism to protect the interest of all member countries, especially on environmental issues, France has announced its plans to build some military capabilities with focus on Arctic affairs. Extra territorial countries like Britain, China and South Korea have also exhibited increased interest in the Arctic region. Correspondingly, China has expressed its interest in the scientific research activities in the region and has opened a department of strategic affairs in its Polar Research Institute.
It is reported that Russia has resumed patrolling the Arctic region with bomber planes and warships while investing more than a billion dollars in the expansion of its northern port of Murmansk which is supposed to double its capacity by 2015.
Obviously, NATO representing its four of the five Arctic coastal states of the region – Canada, Denmark, Norway and United States is likely to remain engaged in the region with stronger military capability and has outlined its focus on improving better coordination on security related issues especially since 2009, however Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov however, has repeatedly said that NATO has no place in the Arctic, be it for political or security reasons.
After 15 years of the establishment of the Arctic Council, United States was represented for the first time by its Secretary of State in its Council meeting in Nuuk in Greenland last year. Signifying its greater importance for its huge natural resources, Hillary Clinton in its Seventh Council meeting in May last year was also accompanied by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Senator Lisa Murkowski, from Alaska – the adjoining American state that credits America as Arctic country.
This year again, in early June Clinton arrived at the Norwegian city of Tromso – located at the north of Arctic Circle where the Arctic Council has established its secretariat. From Tromso she conveyed the message to the World that the region is going to gain greater geopolitical significance for its new found wealth and opportunities – that soon will redraw a new geo-energy and geo-economic map of the world with new shipping routes to global trade and commercial hub.
Therefore, on the background of heightened tension in East Asian over tiny islet chain, all the coastal countries in the Arctic while acknowledging the mutual sharing of benefits that is available in the region, a global framework to ensure Arctic security and stability followed by effective measures to reduce geo-political confrontation that has become a vital need to ascertain global security.