November 6, 2008
By Peter Brookes
By many accounts, the sea ice that covers much of the earth's
Arctic region is melting. The size -- that is, the extent -- and
thickness of the Arctic ice floes are diminishing, following a
three-decade trend and brushing up against last year's historic
While many ruminate about the lives of polar bears, climate
change in the Northern Hemisphere and even the fate of small island
nations from rising sea levels, there are other possible
implications, too -- those of the security kind.
It turns out that while the geographic North Pole belongs to no
one, the area around it may hold significant natural resources,
including large deposits of previously inaccessible oil and natural
gas. Considering the high cost of energy to consumers and the high
value of oil and natural gas to producers these days, people and
governments, naturally, are paying very close attention to the
dramatic changes taking place in the Arctic Ocean.
Circumpolar nations, most notably the U.S., Russia, Canada,
Norway and Denmark, are scrambling to claim and control the vast
untapped ocean floor under the disappearing ice -- even the transit
lanes through the Arctic.
Hello, climate change; goodbye, peaceful pole.
The Arctic (an undefined area, but generally above 66 degrees
North latitude) may have as much as 90 billion technically
recoverable barrels of oil and nearly 2 trillion cubic feet of
recoverable natural gas, based on current industry capabilities and
practices, according to a just-released four-year study by the U.S.
Geological Survey (USGS). By comparison, there are more than 1
trillion barrels of proven oil reserves and more than 6 trillion
cubic feet of natural gas globally; the world consumes nearly 90
million barrels of oil a day.
In the first publicly available assessment of the region, the
USGS estimates the Arctic accounts for more than 20 percent of the
yet-to-be-discovered, technically recoverable resources in the
world, including nearly 15 percent of the world's undiscovered oil
and 30 percent of its natural gas.
That is good news -- but who owns it?
According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the
Sea, states have a right to a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic
Zone (EEZ) off their coasts. The EEZ can be extended if it is part
of a country's continental shelf, where the state can claim
sovereignty over natural resources. This, of course, can lead to
conflicting territorial claims. Indeed, experts assert this issue
could be particularly difficult in the Arctic, where states'
potential rights to the resources around the largely unexplored
North Pole, especially the potentially rich Lomonosov Ridge, an
undersea mountain range, more than 1,200 miles long, are likely to
In May, the five Arctic Ocean-bordering states met on Greenland.
The resulting Ilulissat Declaration reaffirmed the nations'
commitment to an orderly settlement of conflicting claims
concerning the continental shelf, among other issues tied to the
Arctic region. Researchers from these countries have been
collecting data from the sea bed to support their Arctic
aspirations. Of course, some countries are not waiting to mark
In August 2007, two Russian deep-submergence research vehicles,
Mir-1 and -2, planted a titanium flag on the sea bed near the North
Pole at a depth of nearly 14,000 feet, claiming for Moscow a
territory between the undersea Mendeleev and Lomonosov ridges the
size of France, Germany and Italy combined. While some derided the
flag-planting as a little more than a geopolitical stunt, the
Russians are likely serious about their claims, considering their
quest for oil and gas rights -- indeed, energy hegemony across the
globe. (Russia is the world's No. 1 producer of natural gas and No.
2 exporter of oil. Some experts believe Russian oil reserves have
peaked and will be depleted by 2030.)
In July, Moscow announced it would send its Northern Fleet Navy,
based at Severomorsk on the Kola Peninsula, to patrol Arctic waters
-- perhaps, the first time it has done so since the fall of the
Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Indeed, it was reported in late
September that a Northern Fleet submarine had completed a 30-day
transit under the Arctic ice, surfacing off the Kamchatka Peninsula
in the northern Pacific Ocean.
Some experts are expecting more than a few new submarines and
surface ships for Russia's once-mighty Kola Peninsula, including,
perhaps, another run at developing aircraft carriers that could be
operating in northern climes in the out-years. The shipbuilding
program will not include just warships, but also as many as 14 new
ice breakers in the coming years. In fact, Russia commissioned the
world's largest nuclear-powered ice breaker last year, 50 Years of
Victory, bringing the number of nuclear ice-crushing ships
available for Arctic duty to seven.
The Russian Navy has tried to downplay its more muscular stance
in the Arctic, insisting it is just part of its natural
re-emergence as a great naval power. That re-emergence will be
bolstered by a 30 percent increase in Russia's defense budget next
year. In a throwback to the Cold War, Moscow already has its Long
Range Aviation operating widely, including in the Arctic, using
Tu-95 reconnaissance and Tu-142 anti-submarine aircraft from bases
in Russia's northern and far eastern military districts.
In addition to its military maneuvers, in September, Russian
President Dmitry Medvedev instructed the drafting of a new state
policy on the Arctic, including a law expressing Moscow's view of
the country's northern border. The Kremlin also has sent scientific
exhibitions to the Arctic to survey the area and collect evidence,
including soil samples, to support Moscow's claim to the Lomonosov
Ridge as an extension of Russia's continental shelf. But the
Russians are not the only ones gearing up for possible Arctic
Canada, for one, is not standing idly by when it comes to the
Arctic. Canadian scientists are building their own case for claims
on the Lomonosov Ridge -- and a second sub-surface mountain range
in the West, called the Alpha Ridge, in the Beaufort Sea. In
support of this, Ottawa also has announced plans to build six to
eight medium-sized ships, capable of operating in ice 3 feet thick,
to conduct Arctic patrols. Canada has one large and five light- to
medium-sized icebreakers; all are reaching the end of their service
lives. Some say the mid-sized ships may not be up to the task,
instead calling for larger ships for the job of looking after
Canada's so-called "High North." One skeptical Canadian politician
said the new ships are more aptly called "slush-breakers."
But that is not all. In August, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen
Harper announced plans to establish a deep-sea port on Baffin
Island to support Canadian air and sea patrols in the region,
especially the new-construction ships. Ottawa also plans to build a
new winter fighting school at a base on Resolute Bay in the
Northwest Passage, 400 miles south of the North Pole, affirming
that Canada plans a growing -- and long-term -- presence in the
While Canada reportedly has fewer than 200 soldiers and 1,500
volunteer indigenous Inuit rangers operating in the Arctic,
providing security to more than 1.5 million square miles of
Canadian territory, large-scale, joint exercises, such as the
Nanook series, have increased. The commander of Joint Task Force
North, which kicked off Nanook '08 in late September, said: "Our
purpose is to exert sovereignty, demonstrate sovereignty and
security, but also learn how to live off the land and learn more
about the operating environment here in the north."
A Canadian commission also recently recommended Ottawa establish
a surveillance network to monitor activities in the Arctic as well
as build a new research station near the Northwest Passage. Ottawa
also wants recognition of its sovereignty over the Northwest
Passage, the once-mythical route that offers the quickest and most
economic waterway between Asia and Europe, eliminating the need
for, and limitations imposed by, the Panama Canal. The route, which
by some estimates might be navigable year-round by 2050, would
shorten shipping distances between the two continents by more than
2,000 miles, cutting costs and travel time for sea cargo.
Denmark, which lays claim to the Arctic through its possession
of self-governing Greenland, also is getting in the race.
Copenhagen boldly claims the Lomonosov Ridge is a geological
extension of the large island land mass, which in reality is more
white than green.
But conflicting claims are not restricted to the Russians, who
are not likely to be intimidated by Danish claims. The Danes also
are sparring with the Canadians over ownership of tiny Hans Island,
a rocky Arctic outcrop, which both countries claim.
The Danes are not the only ones on the move in Scandinavia.
Norway, an energy giant, plans to spend more than $100 million on a
new electronic surveillance system to monitor Russian actions in
the north, according to a Defense News report in June. Reminiscent
of the Cold War and its role as a front-line NATO state in it,
Norway will establish radar stations and open-water monitoring
facilities in the Barents and Norwegian seas, according to Oslo.
The proposed surveillance system is a response not only to Russia's
re-invigorated interest in the Arctic, but also to Moscow's
heightened military activity on the neighboring Kola Peninsula and
The Americans, who lay claim to the Arctic through Alaska, also
are paying more attention to the region. For instance, in May, the
U.S. military launched its annual Northern Edge series of exercises
in and around Alaska. Over a two-week period, the exercise involved
more than 5,000 personnel from units from as far away as Hawaii and
Japan, as well as more than 100 aircraft and a number of U.S. Navy
ships. The Russians, not surprisingly, highlighted the annual
Alaska exercise this year, using it as a rhetorical foil for
justifying their own military build-up in the Arctic. Although
always tight-lipped about its operations, the American silent
service is believed to have held submarine exercises with the
British last year in northern waters, no doubt to test itself in
the Arctic's changing environment.
The diminished ice coverage certainly will change the strategic
situation in the Arctic region, long a hopeful safe harbor for
Russian fleet ballistic missile submarines in their cat-and-mouse
game with adversary attack submarines and anti-submarine
While seemingly natural allies on Arctic issues, Canada and the
U.S. actually dispute some territory in the Beaufort Sea, known as
the Wedge, as well as the navigational status of the Northwest
Passage. Washington views the Northwest Passage as international
waters, while Ottawa sees it as an internal waterway. Canada has
strongly objected to U.S. submarine transits of the passage, which
has become a cause celebre in the Canadian press from time to
Despite this, in August, a Canadian research ship, Louis S. St.
Laurent, and an American Coast Guard cutter, Healy, conducted joint
exploration of the northern sea bed, working to develop a
three-dimensional map of the sea floor.
So, while all the countries concerned have promised to allow
diplomacy, science and international law to resolve how the
potentially rich Arctic should be divvied up in terms of
sovereignty, it is not clear it will end up that way. For instance,
while the cold front that has descended on East-West relations over
the Russia-Georgia conflict may not last forever, issues that
appear nongermane certainly could get in the way of bilateral or
multilateral cooperation. Indeed, even before the Georgia dust-up,
an expert group expressed concern about the possibility of the
Arctic becoming increasingly militarized as the global demand for
energy and raw materials skyrockets, overwhelming well-intentioned
In its report, the USGS called the Arctic region "the largest
unexplored prospective area for petroleum remaining on Earth." With
little reason to doubt it, that assertion will not be ignored by
the major powers that ring the Arctic. With the surge in energy
prices being driven by sluggish new production, continuing limits
on global refining capability, jittery energy markets and rapidly
increasing demand from the likes of India and China, countries are
likely to hedge their bets in the Arctic.
U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, during a recent
visit to Alaska, said in a radio interview: "For the last 20 years,
the conventional view for policymakers in Washington is that any
activity in the Arctic is basically related to science."
Those days are gone -- probably for good. Indeed, Washington is
expected to shortly issue a presidential national security
directive on the Arctic -- arguably the first major policy
statement on the issue in more than a decade.
But it will take more than a presidential policy statement to
address the challenges of the Arctic. More resources will have to
be devoted to the task, including increasing the number of U.S. ice
breakers, which stands at a paltry three superannuated ships.
The U.S. has a lot at stake in the Arctic. Now is not the time
for getting a case of cold feet in projecting American power to
protect and advance our national interests in the north.
Peter is a Senior Fellow in National
Security Affairs and Chung Ju-Yung Fellow for Policy Studies in
the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Armed Forces Journal
By many accounts, the sea ice that covers much of the earth’s Arctic region is melting. The size — that is, the extent — and thickness of the Arctic ice floes are diminishing, following a three-decade trend and brushing up against last year’s historic lows.
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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