Sunday, September 18, 2016

Robin McKie - Arctic nations square up as clamour for resources grows

The Arctic is heating up in meteorological, political and environmental terms as nations fall over themselves to exploit the region.

Apart from Denmark’s rebuff of Russia’s Arctic overtures, Canadian explorers announced last week they had discovered the wreck of HMS Terror, one of the two ships belonging to British explorer Sir John Franklin’s doomed attempt to sail the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. (The other expedition ship, Erebus, was discovered two years ago.) These two vessels have enormous symbolic importance because Canada believes they support its claim to own the passage, which other nations, such as the US, argue is international waters.

Then there were the recent moves by China to invest in mines in Greenland, where declining ice cover is exposing vast outcrops of ores, including minerals crucial to mobile phone manufacture. Similarly, drilling companies are eyeing seabed reserves of natural gas and oil while travel companies are preparing to send huge cruise liners into the region. The first of these trips, by the Crystal Serenity, has just been completed.

Enormous forces, political and commercial, are bearing down on the region although all have a common root – as was also highlighted last week. Summer sea ice, which once covered 7.5 million sq km around the north pole, this year dropped to 4.13m sq km, its second lowest figure on record, it was announced.The rate of annual change – brought about by soaring fossil fuel emissions and rises in global temperatures – is now equivalent to a loss greater than the size of Scotland.

Most scientists now expect that, at current emission rates, the Arctic will be reliably free of sea ice in the summer by the middle of the century. By “free” they mean there will be less than 1m sq km of sea ice left in the Arctic, most of it packed into remote bays and channels while the central Arctic Ocean over the north pole will be completely open. And by “reliably”, scientists mean there will have been five consecutive years with less than 1m sq km of ice by the year 2050. The first single ice-free year will come much earlier than this, however.

“The Arctic is opening up, and all sorts of flashpoints lie ahead,” said Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London. “If the central Arctic Ocean is freed of ice for several months a year, who will control the fishing and the dumping of waste there? The Russians have also made it clear they want to drill for oil and gas.” This point was also stressed by Professor Chris Rapley, of University College London. “An increasingly ice-free Arctic is a geopolitical game changer,” he said.

Already there are profound changes, with invasive species pouring into the warming Arctic and threatening existing populations, according to Melanie Lancaster of WWF’s Arctic programme. “Specialised Arctic species such as polar bears [are already] showing signs of stress. Conservation action is urgently needed.”

However, the Arctic, its wildlife and its four million inhabitants face a major handicap: the region’s lack of centralised protection and control. The Antarctic Treaty bans all mining, oil drilling or the presence of the military and strictly monitors all environmental hazards around the south pole. By contrast, although no nation owns the north pole, the Arctic nations – Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark – have very different ideas about how to run the world’s most northerly regions.

China recently assigned itself the status of being “a near-Arctic state”. It views the opening Arctic seas as an opportunity to maintain its access to the world’s most important resources. Some of the Earth’s major stocks of fish are migrating north as the planet heats up while the Arctic’s mineral resources are being exposed by retreating ice. “The Chinese have made no secret that they have their eyes on the Arctic’s fish and minerals,” said Dodds.

This raises the question of what the Inuit and other Arctic people think about resources being exploited by others. “They are not against resource development but they do like to be consulted and involved,” said Dodds. “They do not want to be cheated. However, there are often disagreements within communities about the choices they have to make. Will a mining development ruin a village’s tourist potential, for example?”

Byers was cautious. “I have enormous sympathy for the local peoples in the Arctic but they are few in number and have limited resources. They are trying to insert themselves into the decision-making of some of the most powerful companies and countries in the world,” he said. Relations with indigenous people are one of the flashpoints that may trigger serious disputes in the region. There is already bitterness among the Inuit about their treatment in the past and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is currently investigating the serious abuse that thousands of children received in residential schools last century. That resentment could colour future attempts to develop the region... Read more: