ENVIRONMENT: Resource Rich Arctic Severely Threatened

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By Devinder Kumar

NEW DELHI - A new study is pleading for the resource rich Arctic located at the northern-most part of the planet Earth to be treated as "a global common and a common heritage of mankind", in the interest of preserving an important ecosystem and halting morbid militarisation of the region.

The area consisting of a vast, ice-covered ocean, surrounded by treeless permafrost, should not continue to be regarded as an exclusive domain of the Arctic Five countries – Russia, Norway, Canada, Denmark (Greenland) and the United States – as well as of the Arctic Council which includes three more countries in the Arctic Circle, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, says the study by think-tank close to the Government of India.

"These countries are . . . militarising the Arctic in pursuit of their narrow national interests," says the study by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). "Their focus is limited to issues such as claiming Exclusive Economic Zones . . ., rights and resources for sea passage and the like," argues the report by Col P K Gautam (Retd).

The study calls upon India and other developing countries not to leave "the issue of the Arctic's future to the developed countries." The first step in this regard, according to Gautam, will be for India to become an ad hoc observer to the Arctic Council. At the same time, he advises the "strategic community" in India to take the lead in articulating and debating the idea of including the Arctic in the discourse on global commons.

All the more so, because: "Protecting the ecology is low in their (Arctic Council's) priority. Their business as usual attitude towards global warming combined with the prospects of the pollution of the Arctic due to increased shipping is likely to further degrade the ecology of the region."

Global Warming

Several independent studies indicate that the Arctic sea ice has receded by about 40 per cent since 1979. "We are confronted by a new ocean," was the comment made in the Arctic Environmental Assessment of the U.S. Navy released in August 2011.

Besides, the Arctic region is experiencing rising air and water temperatures, loss of volume in ice sheets and glaciers, melting of permafrost, and the pole ward migration of ecosystems and fishing stocks from warmer regions.

"The Indian summer expedition contingent of 2011 to the Arctic has reported melting glaciers, receding snow levels, pollutants and changes in the life cycle of some organisms," says the study, and warns that global warming will lead to the further melting of the Arctic in the near future.

"Once that happens, two geopolitical events will take place. The first will be a new recoverable source of oil and gas. The second will be new and shorter strategic sea routes that will change the pattern of energy flows on sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) with new security implications," says the author of the report.

The ecology of the Arctic Ocean is of international concern that needs the attention of the international community, he adds, and passionately pleads for an initiative to save the Arctic by declaring it as a global common.

Exclusive Economic Zone

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic contains 10 per cent of the world's known petroleum reserves and 25 per cent of undiscovered reserves. These percentages are equal to 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.

"Within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) fossil fuel extraction is legitimate, but it needs to be environmentally friendly," says Gautam.

Russia is expected to benefit the most since most fossil fuel reserves are within its jurisdiction in the Arctic region. However, in September 2010, Russia and Norway signed an Arctic border pact, ending the 40-year dispute over the Barents Sea and the Arctic coastline.

According to figures published by Institute of Oil and Gas Problems, Russia will be extracting up to 30 million tons of oil and 130 billion metric cubes of natural gas on its Arctic shelf by 2030 under the North Pole as its territory.

Since it has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), the United States is unable to stake its claim before the Continental Shelf Commission, but is taking all measures to control the resources and routes.

The second impact of Arctic melt down will be opening up of new sea routes via the Arctic to the east coast of Asia and the west coast of North America. "It must be kept in mind that the region is extremely cold and dark for half the winter. There is also a view that the route will remain closed in winter. Even in summer the going is difficult because floating ice poses a threat to shipping," says the study.

It adds: "Highly capable, motivated and trained personnel with appropriate equipment will be required to navigate the new strategic Arctic sea. Coastal infrastructure in the region is comparatively underdeveloped. Search and rescue operations will be very difficult. Though no match for the traditional warm water routes such as the Indian Ocean, sea faring powers are not going to be deterred by adverse weather."

Three Routes

According to the study, the three routes in order of the possibility of being opened up are the Northeast Passage (also known as the northern passage), the northwest passage and the north polar passage that cuts straight across - when all the ice is melted.

The Northwest Passage shortens the shipping route between Asia and the U.S. east coast by 5,000 miles. The northeast sea route over Eurasia cuts short shipping routes between Europe and North East Asia by 40 per cent, compared to the Suez or the Panama canals.

The Northeast Passage is expected to be the first to open up in summer, says the study, adding that if there is rapid ice melt then the direct route via the North Pole may be the preferred option. In 2008, one think tank predicted that the Northeast Passage will be navigable in five to ten and the north polar route in 30-40 years.

Gautam points out that special ship hulls to withstand the cold and ice conditions will need to be built and icebreakers will also be required. Russia has 20 nuclear powered ice breakers, Canada 12 and the United States one. It takes 8 to 10 years to build one at a cost of about $1 billion.

Presently, South Korea is the major builder of ice- capable ships. Russia intends to build more powerful icebreakers, both diesel powered and three more nuclear powered icebreakers by 2020.
The private sector is investing in a fleet of Arctic tankers. In 2005, there were 262 ice-class ships in service worldwide and 234 more on order. The concept of double-acting tankers (which can steam bow first through open water and then turn around and proceed stern first to smash through ice) is a recent development.

Militarisation

More such ships will be operating in these waters in the future, remarks the study. These new ships can sail unhindered to the Arctic's burgeoning oil and gas fields without the aid of ice breakers. Such breakthroughs are revolutionising Arctic shipping and turning what were once commercially unavailable projects into booming businesses.

The Russians similarly have ice breaking oil tankers which shuttle oil from the Siberian coast to ice free ports for transfer to conventional tankers for outward journey. In future, these could transport oil pumped offshore as well.

In August 2010, the first such tanker of 114,564 tonnes (SCF Baltica) escorted by two powerful nuclear icebreakers successfully delivered gas condensates to China skirting the Arctic coastline. The icebreakers cleared the way through 4,000 kms before reaching the Russian port of Pevek in Chukotsky Sea, from where the tanker continued the journey on its own. The route, it is claimed, is twice as fast as the Suez Canal route and about 15 per cent cheaper.

The distance from the Russian port of Murmansk to Shanghai through the Arctic route is 10,600 km while it is 17,700 km via the Suez Canal. Russia intends to carry out further trials that include shipping crude along this route. China too has been investing more in conducting scientific research at the North Pole by setting up a research base and beginning expeditions north of the Bering Strait since 2000.

"While the US Congress may question the science of climate change, the Pentagon thinks otherwise," according to a study published in the New Scientist in March 2011. A 2009 study of the security implications of climate change concluded that the Arctic is the key challenge for the U.S. Navy. Admiral James G. Stavridis, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, in a foreword to Prof. Paul Berkman's Environmental Security in the Arctic Ocean: Promoting Cooperation and Preventing Conflict, warns that global warming and a race for resources could lead to conflict in the Arctic.

Writing about it in the Naval War College Review, the former U.S. admiral and his co-author see the role of the U.S. navy to include the U.S. navy's Arctic road map and the setting up of a Task Force on Climate Change (TFCC) with a five year action plan.

The authors even support ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by the United States. In September 2008 the 'Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic until 2020 and Beyond’ were approved. They call for creating a force capable of maintaining military security in various military and political situations.

Canada has beefed up its coastguard with four armed icebreakers. It is setting up military bases and a deep water port on the shore of the Northwest Passage with military facilities 595 kilometres from the North Pole. It is also raising a force made up indigenous and Inuit Indians to patrol the northern borders.

IDSA http://www.idsa.in Arctic Environmental Assessment of the U.S. Navy released in August 2011.
http://www.navy.mil/search/%20display.asp?story_id=62199 New Scientist in March 2011
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20228 Environmental Security in the Arctic Ocean: Promoting Cooperation and Preventing Conflict
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/oct/11/nato-conflict-arctic-resources?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487

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