Climate change and Geopolitics of the Arctic

The Arctic is generally described as being the region surrounding the North Pole, but there are in fact several definitions. The generally-agreed limit is delineated by the Arctic Circle, where during the solstices the night or the day lasts 24 hours. Another definition is based on the 10 C° isotherm, which marks the limit beyond which vegetation sheds its greenery. The Arctic is a strategic zone due to its geographic position, but for a long time the harsh weather conditions and the thick pack ice prevented its exploitation. The shrinking of the ice cap in summer has since accelerated and already observers do not hesitate to predict that the region, with its 4 million largely indigenous inhabitants, is going to become the next Eldorado. While the decrease in the pack ice certainly represents a major paradigm shift, several indicators demand caution.

Icebergs and pack ice

Icebergs, only one tenth of the volume of which is exposed, are made up of fresh water and formed over the course of millennia by the accumulation of snow on the ice caps, which is released gradually, breaking up into the sea. Iceberg water is so pure that it is similar to distilled water. The Ilulissat glacier is the most active one in the Northern hemisphere: it is advancing at a rate of 25 to 30 metres per day and releases 8 billion tonnes of ice per year. Another example is the Humboldt glacier, to the northwest, the leading edge of which is around 100 km wide. The biggest icebergs may flow for several years before reaching the Labrador and Newfoundland coast, where on contact with warmer water they begin to melt.

Unlike icebergs, the coastal pack ice is made of saline seawater, which freezes and covers the fjords in winter and at the beginning of spring (generally between December and May), thus isolating many villages. It is formed in the freezing Arctic Ocean (not to be confused with the permanent pack ice), splits up into slabs after breaking off, and travels along the East coast of Greenland. Then it travels back up the West coast due to marine currents. The pack ice can be up to several metres deep and its quite smooth surface can be crossed using dog sleds or snowmobiles. The melting of part of the coastal pack ice can have dramatic consequences, including endangering the Arctic fauna, notably the polar bear.

The issues of Natural resources

Long considered to be a frozen domain populated by sparse communities, interest in the Arctic has grown. Whereas during the Cold War it was the scene of American and Soviet submarine movements, the region is now attracting everyone’s attention due to the extensive untapped natural resources it is thought to hold, first and foremost many minerals. The region of Nunavut, in Canada, has lead, zinc, diamond, silver, gold and copper deposits. The Russian Arctic features high concentrations of gold, tin, copper, diamonds and nickel.

Mining revenue in Greenland could exceed the 500-million-euro allowance which Denmark pays every year, opening the way to probable independence. (See Chapter on the Economy, under Current Issues) 

Les hydrocarbures : The Arctic is thought to hold some 100 billion barrels of oil and 40,000 billion cubic metres of gas that is technically recoverable. This represents three and a half years of oil consumption and 15 years of gas at the current rate of consumption, and 13% and 30% respectively of undiscovered oil and gas reserves – a considerable potential which is being revealed a little more every year as the pack ice recedes. Some deposits have already begun to be exploited, notably in Russia (Yamal) and in the United States (Prudhoe Bay).

These figures should be viewed with caution, however, since the rare estimates come from either the US Geological Survey or the Russian government. The oil companies that launched exploration surveys to confirm the region’s potential have had disappointing results. Thus, Shell announced in September that it was abandoning exploration operations off the coast of Alaska, having spent no less than 7 billion dollars. Operating a platform in the Arctic in fact represents a considerable technical challenge in terms of withstanding the climate conditions, drifting ice and movements in the pack ice. This results in significant additional costs, which the current prices per barrel cannot cover. The sector estimates that it would require a floor price of $110 to $120 per barrel for operations to be profitable. With a price per barrel fluctuating between $45 and $50, the oil companies’ policy change is not surprising.

The question of new shipping routes

The shrinking of the pack ice has two different effects on shipping routes. The first is an increase in local shipping traffic, which leads to a growth in trade and economic development generally. The second has an international dimension. Certain shipping routes that had been impassable up to this point became accessible. So, the Northeast Passage follows the Russian coast and makes it possible to travel between the ports of Rotterdam and Tokyo in just 14,000 km, compared to 21,200 km via the Suez Canal, and 23,300 km via the Panama Canal. The Northwest Passage, which skirts around Canada and the United States, would be shorter for ships leaving Yokohama (Japan) for the Mediterranean, to travel to Marseille, for example.  The opening up of these shipping routes by the melting of the ice would provide an attractive alternative for shipping companies that would thus avoid certain bottlenecks like Suez and Panama. At the moment these routes are navigable for only two or three months of the year, in the summer. Over the next few years this period of time could be extended to three to six months, enabling them to become real "seasonal shipping routes".

Professor Frédéric Lasserre does not see the region becoming the maritime hub that some foresee, however: "In 2014, around 40 ships took the northern route, only one of them a commercial vessel. Most of the traffic is local-use (fishing, transport, mining exploitation). The structure of commercial shipping business does not fit well with the Arctic. It requires a high degree of reliability (less so for bulk goods) and punctuality. So, unlike the other routes, it is impossible to know 6 months in advance what the condition of these Arctic routes will be. This is a serious constraint for the sector. Furthermore, at the end of the day, there are few viable direct routes such as Rotterdam-Singapore. In fact, the ships have many ports of call, making the Arctic alternative less relevant".

The international interests

In 2007, the pictures of a Russian Navy mini-sub planting a titanium flag at a depth of 4,261 metres, at the North Pole, went around the world. The media saw this as the launch of the race for the Arctic and its potential wealth. "It’s purely symbolic, there is nothing there, but the Russian submarine expedition in 2007 made an impression on people. Its purpose was electioneering, above all. In Canada, former prime minister Harper instructed civil servants in charge of the matter to expand claims to include the Pole. In this case also the symbol itself alone motivated this demand ", Frédéric Lasserre, head of the Quebec Council of Geopolitical Studies at the University of Laval, comments.

However, Moscow has been attempting to expand its sovereignty over the far north for 15 years already, in vain. "In order to claim these maritime areas of the Arctic, Russia must prove the extent of its continental shelf by means of geological evidence. This is what it attempted to do in 2001, before having its claim dismissed for lack of scientific grounds". Since then, the Kremlin has resumed geological surveys to support its case and make a new application, claiming ownership of an area of 1.2 million km2, to the United Nations commission responsible for confirming the limits of the continental shelf.

Between the oil, gas and mineral potentials and the new shipping routes that are opening up, it is easier to understand Moscow’s insistence on having its sovereignty over such a vast part of the Arctic recognised, but Russia is not the only one in the running. Norway filed its claim in 2006. It was confirmed the following year. Denmark made its move recently, in 2013, but the timing is not important, because in the event of any overlap between claims, it is up to the states concerned to negotiate a solution. In any case, the UN Commission does not mark out any borders. This is an important detail, because it will logically involve the holding of bilateral or indeed trilateral negotiations with regard to the same maritime area.

The states bordering the area are not the only ones to take an interest in the Arctic. France and Germany were thus the first ones to request and be given the status of observer on the Arctic Council, an institution created in 1996, dedicated to protection of the environment and more recently to economic cooperation between the eight nations of the Arctic Circle. France and Germany have since been joined by Italy, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India and China. Intense diplomatic activity by China and the great dynamism of its businesses in the region are aimed at giving concrete form to Chinese interests, particularly in relation to Iceland, with which it signed six cooperation agreements, notably in the fields of energy, science and technology. China is certainly interested in the natural resources and the potential offered by the Arctic in the sphere of shipping, but more unusually for Beijing’s strategies it is also a matter of making its voice heard in the scientific sphere, by participating, in particular, in research programmes in the zone.

This diplomatic approach also goes hand in hand with military moves. Chinese and Russian combat vessels have thus been crossing the region on joint manoeuvres and the press reports that China has made an offer to purchase the base at Thule. That was that moment when the United States chose to announce its intention to expand the icebreaking fleet (currently numbering two) to reinforce its presence in the far north.

The United States has an ambiguous position in this matter because while it wants to demonstrate its determination to defend its interests in the Arctic, on the other hand it is excluded from the UN process for the recognition of sovereignty, and with reason, because "It is the only country not to have ratified the Law of the Sea. A conservative fringe of Congress has held a blocking minority for years, and only a signatory to the convention may seek to benefit from its rules to extend its maritime sovereignty. Presidents Bush and Obama sounded out the territory, but in vain. It is therefore fairly unlikely that Washington will be able to file a claim with the UN within the next 15 or 20 years", Frédéric Lasserre believes. In that space of time, it is highly likely that the other Arctic states will have made a head start.

Despite the enormous stakes involved, the neighbouring states’ claims appear to favour negotiation. Thus, Moscow and Oslo signed an agreement in 2010 which settled, once and for all, the Barents Sea border dispute which had lasted for over 40 years. This kind of bargaining is expected to become more frequent over the next few years, notably in relation to the Lomonosov Ridge.

These negotiations and the relative political stability that ensues might cause surprise, in view of the stakes involved. "The Arctic is not a region beset by conflict, as we sometimes hear. On the contrary, it is very stable", notes Joël Plouffe, a researcher at the Observatoire de la politique et la sécurité de l’Arctique (OPSA – the Arctic policy and safety watchdog). There is in fact a divide between media coverage of the Arctic since 2007 and the true situation. Although countries’ interest in the region is genuine, it is far from a situation of a "battle for the Arctic", for several reasons. As we have seen, the exploitation of natural resources is a technical and economic issue. Furthermore, according to estimates, between 90% and 95% of the potential oil and gas reserves are thought to be located inside the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) formed by the countries of the vicinity. Many of the resources located within the Arctic have therefore already been divided up and the appropriation of new areas will probably not change the situation in this sphere.

The Arctic might not perhaps be a zone of heavy international maritime traffic, because although passages are opening up, navigating them is still a complex matter. The zone is still not well known, is poorly charted and is undergoing considerable ecological change. Russia and the other regional powers must make colossal investments to establish a cohesive system of weather stations and navigation, communications and monitoring satellites. This would be part of the price countries would have to pay to possess the means necessary to extend their influence in this undoubtedly geostrategic region.