Claiming the Arctic

So, when you think of global warming, you think of sea levels rising? Well, why do the sea levels rise? Because of melting ice as well as ocean water temperature increasing and so on. Now, take into consideration another consequence of melting ice on a large scale: new sea routes and natural resources will be open to international trade. But who has control of this no man’s land? Under international law, no country currently owns the North Pole or the region of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it. The five surrounding countries –  the Russian Federation, the United States (via Alaska), Canada, Norway and Denmark (via Greenland) – are limited to 200 nautical miles (370 km/230 miles) adjacent to their coasts. In 2007, the Russians planted a flag at the bottom of the ocean, claiming a huge, unexploited, resource-rich section of the Arctic, despite Canada also claiming the region. Tensions have since simmered.

As the ice recedes year-by-year, the Arctic’s significance as a global transport link and a source of natural resources grows stronger. The Russian government estimates that the Arctic region harbours approximately a quarter of the world’s oil and gas. In early 2011, at an Arctic conference held in Norway, U.S. Rear Admiral Dave Titley stated: “We believe that sometime between 2035 and 2040, there is a pretty good chance that the Arctic Ocean will be essentially ice-free for about a month.” Connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific will reduce transit times considerably. Russian scientists are striving to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range that cuts across the Arctic Ocean, is geologically part of the Russian mainland.

Denmark also has interests in claiming the ridge, suggesting it is an extension of Greenland, which is a self-governing province of Denmark. On the other hand, Canadian scientists assert that the Lomonosov Ridge belongs to the North American land mass. Interest is increasing throughout the world, even among countries such as China, Italy, Japan and Korea, which are far from the Arctic. The Arctic Council (which technically has no legal status) granted “observer” status to six nations, including China. Although the council’s initial aims were about environmental protection, it has more recently spoken of “the central role of business in the development of the Arctic”. Despite all of this, Ireland seems uninterested or unsuccessful in playing a role in the future of the Arctic, although it is by far closer to it than, for example, China or Italy.

The Arctic Council has become the primary body tasked with handling disputes between Arctic countries. Its current members are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Some established agreements include: international search and rescue co-operation procedures; the establishment of a permanent secretariat in Norway; and a process for granting non-Arctic states permanent observer status within the council. The latter can be viewed as a clever attempt to pacify the EU and China, without actually acknowledging their interests in the region. It is interesting that a primary criterion for becoming a permanent observer is to first accept Arctic countries’ sovereignty over certain parts of the region.

Ireland, it appears, is being left behind. It is still not an observer member of the council. Perhaps this demonstrates a lack of foresight. Understandably, there are plenty of present-day issues occupying the Irish government! The freeing of the Arctic, in a manner of speaking, will in time become headline news, even before countries begin to reap the full benefits. However, organisations, in addition to countries, can become observer members of the Arctic Council. It could be argued that Ireland is indirectly involved through scientific and other intergovernmental organisations such as United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, or through the EU, which is being considered for observer status.

The whole affair has the potential of resulting in economic, political and environmental consequences that will ripple around the world. Ireland is seemingly allowing the opportunity to influence to pass by. By the time it decides to act, it may be too late. It may be a case of not being able to exercise any worthwhile influence. Nevertheless, politicians must be aware of the issue, and must address it in the public arena. Whatever is Ireland’s role in the future of the Arctic, especially as a nearby neighbour, it is clear that rivalry for the region, with its direct shipping routes and untapped natural resources, will heat up on the world stage, perhaps even quicker than the melting ice itself.

– Natasha Ibanez, FT MBA 2012/13