For centuries humanity has relied upon the ocean for its evolution and sustenance: be it the medium of exploring new lands as done so by the likes of Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama to the eternal graves of countless warriors as a result of numerous battles fought on its surface and the extraction of riches which lay beneath those ocean floor graves. Perhaps most importantly it is the convenience of its nature which made it most favorable for commerce, being able to handle sails on top of wooden masts to contemporary container ships weighing in the thousands of tons. However one piece of oceanic real estate had not received an equal share of human meddling as compared to its counterparts: The Arctic Ocean.
The Arctic for centuries had enveloped itself in what seemed to be an everlasting blanket of its massive ice pack protecting its waters from human interference. Though not directly interfered with but indirectly human activities over and beyond the past century which have resulted in global warming resulting in environmental changes opening up this un-touched frontier. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA has illustrated constant decrease in the extent of Arctic ice over the past century. NASA reports that the Arctic has lost 54,000 square kilometers of ice for each year since the late 1970s.It has majorly been the harsh geography of this Northern polar circle that proved to be an obstacle towards it exploitation. At the rate the icepack is melting into its untapped waters, the Arctic Ocean is no longer bound to be an un-disturbed entity enjoying self-isolation, instead on the road to becoming a more globalized space.
According to predictions, by 2040 the summer season in the Arctic Circle will be ice free and by 2050 ice free conditions will prevail all year round. Ice free waters mean signify the potential for resource exploitation, a 2008 Geological Survey conducted by US government in the Arctic Circle presented as assessed 13 percent of global undiscovered oil resources (90billion barrels) and 30 percent of global undiscovered natural gas reserves (1.669 trillion cubic feet), with 84 percent being offshore. Not only are Arctic natural resources limited too oil and natural gas, Admiral (retired) James Stavridis USN values resources such as nickel, platinum, cobalt, manganese, gold, zinc, palladium, lead, diamonds, and rare earth metals in the Arctic at about a trillion dollars.
Ice free waters in Arctic also open up new avenues for commercial maritime traffic in terms of passageways. The two most significant transit routes are the North West Passage and Northern Sea Route. The North West Passage navigates through the Canadian archipelago in the northern territories of Canada, providing an alternate route to the Panama Canal for Pacific-Atlantic voyage. When the first cargo shipped voyaged without any icebreaker assistance through the North West Passage for a journey from Canada to China, it was reportedly 40 percent shorter in terms of distance than opting for the Panama Canal. As for the a journey on the Northern Sea Route requires circumnavigation of the entire Russian coastline & Scandinavian territories for Europe- East Asia journey cutting travel time by 10-15 days as compared to navigating via the Suez Canal.
Exciting opportunities breed dilemmas, and in the affairs of the Arctic they are countless. Ranging from territorial claims, globalizing, to freedom of navigation, at risk indigenous populations and environment. To begin with, confusion still prevails who controls how much and what part of the Arctic. There are 6 Arctic states: Norway, United States, Canada, Iceland, Russia, and Denmark (via its territory of Greenland). Apart from minor overlapping claim of exclusive economic zones of Canada and US, the major dispute is centered on Russia, Canada and Denmark all of whom claim territory up till and beyond the North Pole from their borders (and EEZs). With the ocean slowly peaking from beneath the ice pack and an ever increasing pace. Such disputes if not resolved will eventually effect the stability and peaceful co-existence in the Arctic as a whole. Apart from the existing ruckus, the inclusion of China as an Arctic council observer followed by its recent Arctic Policy tilts the Arctic towards a great power wrestling ring. China’s Arctic policy clearly denotes China as a “near Arctic state” and its goals as to “understand, protect, develop and participate in the governance of the Arctic”. With the opportunities which lie in the region, every state who possesses the ability would cherish having a stake. The affairs of the Arctic for the future will be more globalized, way beyond the chilly confines of its current physical stakeholders.
As melting ice opens up new routes for maritime trade, the status of Arctic shipping routes is also being cast in doubts. The United States has disputed Canadian claims and sovereignty over the North West Passage terming it as an international strait, whereas Canada terms its internal waters. More recently the Arctic Council summit of 2019, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apart from reiterating US position on North West Passage also implied the Northern Sea Route comprising of international waters upon which Russia is making illegitimate claims. The doubts being propagated over shipping routes are bound only to incite politico-diplomatic tensions. Melting ice as a result of climate change has put centuries old life style of indigenous people at risk. In the Arctic Report Card 2019 published by National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration one particular section highlight the plight faced by the indigenous populations: separation of ice packs from population settlements also attracts the wildlife which lives on them and warming waters diminishes fish population for which they rely upon as food sources. Ice based travelling routes have been restricted in time durations due to ice melting and delayed freeze up, un-predictable wind patterns and sea erosion as a result of melting ice. As maritime traffic increases (commercial, leisure, research, military) in the Arctic Ocean, impacts on marine environment derived from shipping such as noise pollution, accidental spills, operational spills and emission of pollutants in atmosphere.
Developments in the Arctic have not been completely in disregard of its local ecosystem, mechanism such as the Polar Code: protocols for ships sailing in polar waters to minimize environmental damage and adequate safety, inclusion of representation from Indigenous population in the Arctic Council which is a prime multi-lateral body for Arctic cooperation. There has been no shortage of corporation in regards to sustainable developments in the Arctic, but the real question comes down to enforcement and compromise; how will ships be monitored in vast Arctic waters where from discharging any pollutants? How can we be certain that interest of indigenous people will not be overlooked to serve the interests of powerful state actors? How can we bring every country on agreeing to mutually agreed EEZs and territorial waters? As long as Arctic stakeholders are willing to compromise for greater good and enforce existing mechanism whole heartedly only then we can see a sustainably developing Arctic ocean and region overall.