December 14, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Polar Opposites Heat Up

While the Climaterati caucus over cappuccinos in Copenhagen about polar bear habitat and the fate of small island nations from rising sea levels, there are other possible climate change implications, too -- those of the security kind.

In fact, we're already seeing them in the Arctic.

By many accounts, much of the Arctic sea ice is melting following a three-decade trend. But while the geographic North Pole belongs to no one, the area around it may hold as much as 20 percent of the world's undiscovered, technically-recoverable natural resources.

That's good news, but who owns it?

Circumpolar nations (the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark) are clamoring to claim the vast untapped ocean floor under the disappearing ice -- even the transit lanes through it.

Problem is there are overlapping claims, especially involving the potentially-rich Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,200-mile long undersea mountain range.

The five Arctic Ocean-bordering states have promised to play nice, but they're also gearing up for rough seas, particularly Russia.

In 2007, Russian mini-subs 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 the size of France, Germany and Italy combined.

While some saw the flag-planting as little more than a geopolitical stunt, the Russians are serious about it, which isn't surprising considering energy's central role in Moscow's re-emergence as a global power.

(Russia is the world's No. 1 producer of natural gas; No. 2 exporter of oil.)

In 2008, Moscow's ships, subs, icebreakers and bombers started flexing muscle in the Arctic -- perhaps the first time since the Soviet Union's fall in the early 1990s.

But the Russians aren't the only ones gearing up for possible Arctic action. Canada's another.

Canadians are making Arctic claims and plans for a deep-sea port, a military base and ice-breaking ships to conduct patrols in the High North.

Ottawa also asserts sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, a route offering the quickest, potentially year-round sea route between Asia and Europe, eliminating the Panama Canal's limits.

We make claim to the Arctic through Alaska. But Washington disputes some territory with our northern neighbor, as well as the Northwest Passage's status, which Ottawa sees as an internal, not international, waterway.

The Scandinavians are scrambling, too. Denmark claims parts of the Arctic via Greenland. Beyond oil/gas, Norway is unnerved due to Russia's heightened, Cold War-like military activity in the north.

So, while all these countries have promised to allow diplomacy, science and international law to resolve how the potentially-rich Arctic is divvied up, it's not clear it will end up that way.

We've big stakes in the Arctic, especially energy, but we're short of Coast Guard and military resources for a polar presence. Now isn't the time for getting cold feet for advancing our national interests in the Far North.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First Appeared in the Boston Herald