The ice gets thinner and thinner
The Arctic – and why it is an indicator of the current state of the world
Source: Unsplash by NOAA
The Arctic has been in the headlines in recent years for its melting ice and the visible effects of climate change. But it also reflects the growing tensions between the global powers. The Arctic Circle becomes a key stage for global competition and could even become a hotspot for a power conflict in the future.
To understand the role of the Arctic and the conflicts going on, it is first important to understand the history. During the Cold War, the Arctic played an important military role due to its strategic role in the systemic competition between the USA and the USSR. The shortest flight distance for intercontinental ballistic missiles between Russia and North America was across the North Pole. Apart from that, Russia hid submarines with nuclear capability under the ice.
Hope arose when Michael Gorbachev talked about transforming the Artic into a “zone of peace”. This vision together with other significant steps led to the creation of the Arctic Council.
The Arctic Council
The Arctic Council was established in 1996 when the governments of Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States signed the Ottawa Declaration. These states which have territories within the Arctic are Members of the Arctic Council. Furthermore, it consists of six permanent participants, organizations which represent the indigenous people living in the Arctic as well as 38 observers (non-arctic states, intergovernmental, interparliamentary organizations and NGOs) who share their expertise and have an interest in the Arctic region.
Objective of the Council is to promote research, facilitate the cooperation among the Arctic countries, protect the Arctic environment and promote the economic, social, and cultural development of the Arctic region. In 2021, Russia had the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council lasting until 2023. However, the work stopped in March 2022, a few days after the Russian invasion into Ukraine. The other seven countries of the Arctic Council decided to suspend the work with Russia in the Arctic Council indefinitely.
This did not only shut down the cooperation in science and research but also raised a lot of other issues.
The Climate Change and its Effects in the Arctic Region
Temperatures in the Arctic region rise almost three times faster than elsewhere in the world due to the so-called albedo effect. When the sunlight hits a white surface such as snow and ice, a lot of it is reflected into space without warming the surface and its surroundings. This is different when the sunlight hits a darker surface. Those absorb the sunlight and heat up. As the Arctic region gets warmer and warmer, more snow and ice melt leading to more dark surfaces that absorb the sunlight and heat up the soil. This again leads to more ice and snow melting and the vicious circle continues which is called the Arctic Amplification. This does not only also affect the rest of the world as the ice melting in the Arctic leads to the earth heating up faster in general. It simultaneously raises some huge issues in the region itself. The ice that covers the Arctic Ocean loses 13 percent per decade. At this rate, experts say that the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer of 2035. The rising sea level has immense consequences on infrastructure and ecosystems. A lot of towns are at risk of collapse and supply networks – such as oil and gas pipelines become unstable. This leads to a disruption of supply of goods and food, but also to a migration due to catastrophes.
The melting ice also leads to security policy issues especially concerning Russia: the country had a natural wall of ice which protected the access to the northern coast. Since this wall is melting away, Russia feels more vulnerable and the Kremlin takes climate change as a threat to its national security and uses it as a justification to militarize its part of the Arctic.
Furthermore, the melting ice allows for new shipping routes, through which global trade could become faster via ships. The Russian-controlled Northern Sea Route has been one of the only ways ships can sail through the Arctic. With the melting ice, more passages could open around 2035. Shipping from Asia to Europe, for example, via the north-east passage would reduce the shipping duration to 28 instead of 48 days. Due to new shipping routes, the Arctic gets more appealing for countries as the high fees and restrictions imposed by Russia on the transit route in its waters in the Arctic deterred a lot of countries from using it.
Taking the new route, countries would not be subject to Russia’s restrictions. Those newly gained trade routes not only shorten distances between markets – they play an important role when it comes to the use of resources in the Arctic region.
The Arctic is a mostly unexplored region which could – according to assumptions – contain large energetical resources such as oil and gas as well as mineral resources like gold, diamonds, platinum as well as rare earth metals. Due to the worldwide high demand for resources, the international interests in the Arctic region and its possible resources are increasing. Countries are already vying for military and commercial control over this territory.
The law situation is very complex. Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic does not have its own legal system. While Antarctica is a terrestrial space, the Arctic is an ocean. This is the reason why it is mostly governed by the law of the sea. Thus, the UN Convention on the Law of the SEA (UNCLOS) of 1982 is the main foundation of the legal order. The land surrounding the Arctic Ocean is governed by each of the States’ national jurisdictions.
According to the UNCLOS the five states bordering the Arctic Ocean have the right to establish a territorial sea up to twelve nautical miles and an exclusive economic zone of up to 200 nautical miles over ice-covered waters. In this exclusive economic zone, the countries have sovereign rights for exploiting the resources of the sea, the ocean floor and its subsoil. A coastal state can go beyond the 200 nautical miles if it can evidence before the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) that it has an extended continental shelf – but only up to an outer limit of 350 nautical miles (Article 76 (6) and 77(1) UNCLOS). This has caused some overlapping areas but so far, the Arctic coastal States have mostly resolved maritime boundary disputes through bilateral negotiations. The areas which are not part of any nation are in exclusively international waters. Those parts of the Arctic Ocean floor and its subsoil have the special status of “common heritage of mankind” by the UNCLOS.
International waters are open for everyone to be used as shipping passages. In internal waters contrarily, foreign ships do not have the right to go without permission. Whether the shipping passages in the Arctic Ocean are international straits is highly debated. To be open for more countries to use the Arctic Ocean and the new passages for trade, Russia and other states have to obey international norms and laws at the sea.
However, as we could see with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, not every country is willing to stick to the law of the nations. It is not clear whether Russia will stop at the limits of its exclusive economic zone and not go beyond it to enforce their jurisdiction. This does not only raise concerns about the future of international cooperation but also about the future of the Arctic and the possibility of a new escalation.
The seven Members who suspended their work in the Arctic Council with Russia are not willing to continue the cooperation with the current situation. It is unclear on which basis they might again be willing to do so. However, half the Arctic’s population and territory is part of Russia. The ongoing climate change and the problems it creates in the Arctic region cannot be tackled effectively without Russia. The current tensions and multiple interferences of other countries in the Arctica need a common answer. Whether there will be a new Cold War unfolding at the top of the world depends not only on the outcome of the Ukrainian war, but also on how the international community and especially the seven members of the Arctic Council decide to act upon.