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The Arctic in peril

by ask Wed Oct 19th, 2005 at 02:15:32 PM EST

Cross-posted from Booman Tribune.

I started this as a comment to an Open Thread at Booman Tribune, but it got too long. The subject is also worthy of a discussion.  The entry could have been more comprehensive, but was prepared during lunch-break - please chime in.

From NYT:

POLITICIANS and scientists may debate why the earth is warming, but the fact remains: the Arctic ice cap, estimates say, has shrunk by nearly half in the last 50 years.
For starters, conflicting territorial claims among the countries that border the Arctic Ocean will rapidly acquire a new urgency. A quarter of the world's oil and natural gas resources lie in the Arctic, but until recently polar ice rendered many of these deposits inaccessible.
Yet perhaps the most significant consequence of the melt is the rising potential for Arctic navigation. The polar thaw may lead to what would be the most transformational maritime project since the Panama Canal: an Arctic Bridge.
Because the Arctic lacks a comprehensive legal framework akin to the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, which ended territorial claims and established Antarctica as a demilitarized region of international scientific cooperation, the United States should play a leading diplomatic role in adjudicating the growing international contest over the Arctic. It should also negotiate an Arctic security arrangement with Canada. (my emphasis)

The improved accessability to the resources of the Arctic will inevitably lead to increased tensions in the absence of an Arctic Treaty similar to the one for the Antarctic (it's already started in a small way).  Russia, Canada and the US have strategic interests in the region.  Smaller nations like Iceland, Denmark and Norway have also traditionally been very active in the area - both in terms of geographical exploration and extraction of resources.  Other nations will be attracted, e.g. to the rich fishing resources.

In view of the above, the need for an "Arctic Treaty" is becoming urgent.  Googling the term did provide some results, but suggest that there is no current progress.  This link (the top result) points to a working draft from 1991.

The WWF is calling for a treaty:

"We need a new Arctic treaty to regulate access to the Arctic," said Samantha Smith, head of the WWF global conservation group's Arctic Programme. The chill Alaskan environment has yet to recover from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

Another resource page on the issue is here (page is from 2000).

What can be done to limit further military expansion and non-sustainable exploitation of the Arctic region?  Very little appears to be happening in international fora.

Curious, that at this late date, there has been no movement in this area. What's taking them so long to get moving on a treaty? What needs to happen to get this going?

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Wed Oct 19th, 2005 at 04:04:59 PM EST
I am puzzled too.  When looking for articles, the only recent reference I could find was the WWF-demand for a treaty.
Policing such a wast wilderness is no easy task, as evidenced by this very current story from BBC:
Two Norwegian fisheries inspectors who have been held on board a Russian trawler since Saturday will be handed over on Thursday, officials say.
The Elektron, which is now in Russian waters, was chased by Norwegian navy ships in the Arctic after it fled, following an inspection of its catch.
The BBC's Lars Bevanger, in Oslo, said the Russian coastguard admitted the trawler might have broken fishing regulations.
Disputes between Norway and Russia over fishing rights have become increasingly common.

Imagine if the bounty is not only fisheries, but also oil and gas - up to 25% of the global reserves!

A quarter of the world's oil and natural gas resources lie in the Arctic, but until recently polar ice rendered many of these deposits inaccessible.
(the NYT-article linked in diary entry)
by ask on Wed Oct 19th, 2005 at 04:36:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Are you joking? The US has no interest in international treaties. I find it disingenuous that the NYT would argue it is important for the US to take the lead.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 19th, 2005 at 05:59:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not sure that that is NYT's suggestion (promoting a treaty).
..the United States should play a leading diplomatic role in adjudicating the growing international contest over the Arctic. It should also negotiate an Arctic security arrangement with Canada.

'Taking a leading role in adjudicating international contest' sounds more like positioning itself to be in charge - not promoting a treaty among equals.  But maybe I interpret that wrongly...

by ask on Wed Oct 19th, 2005 at 06:14:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you are right, but the article had the intended effect on Bob ;-)

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Oct 20th, 2005 at 05:30:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There is an absolutely fascinating article in today's issue of NYT (4 pages long).  Primarily focusing on the current experiences and observations of the indiginous peoples living north of the arctic circle.
No mention of an Arctic Treaty, but maybe this could be a precursor (bottom of page 3):
"We need a policy for the Arctic that considers the next 100 years, not just the next 10 years," Mr. Iversen said.
Norway and the seven other Arctic nations have started to discuss ways to protect the environment they share in a forum called the Arctic Council, established nine years ago. In 2002, the council issued guidelines for offshore oil drilling, calling for drilling projects to be preceded by studies on environmental effects and the availability of cleanup equipment.
by ask on Thu Oct 20th, 2005 at 02:39:39 PM EST
Thursday's NY Times story to which you cite just above is one in a major continuing series they're doing on the Arctic.  There's a link in the first sidebar on the left to the first piece in the series, "As Polar Ice Turns to Water, Dreams of Treasure Abound" (Times Select required, abstract freely available).  This article specifically addressed the issue of claims by various nations and relevant current and potential treaties:
But if the Arctic is no longer a frozen backyard, the fences matter. For now it is not clear where those fences are. Under a treaty called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, territory is determined by how far a nation's continental shelf extends into the sea. Under the treaty, countries have limited time after ratifying it to map the sea floor and make claims.

In 2001, Russia made the first move, staking out virtually half the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole. But after challenges by other nations, including the United States, Russia sought to bolster its claim by sending a research ship north to gather more geographical data. On Aug. 29, it reached the pole without the help of an icebreaker -- the first ship ever to do so.
    --  --  --
Who Governs What

''Stalin once just drew a line from Murmansk to the North Pole and then to Chukchi and said, 'U.S.S.R. Polar Region' -- and nobody worried about it,'' said Artur N. Chilingarov, an Arctic explorer and deputy speaker of Russia's lower house of Parliament.  Now, instead of Stalin, the lines will be drawn by an international commission and the geography of the seabed itself.

That means that the Arctic land grab could be decided in part inside a lab at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. There, at the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, scientists are studying sonar scans of the seabed from a 2002 expedition on a United States Coast Guard icebreaker in waters north of Barrow, Alaska.
    --  --  --
[P]hysical features matter enormously to nations seeking to expand their undersea territory under a murky clause, Article 76, in the Law of the Sea. With only fragments of the Arctic ever surveyed, by icebreaker or nuclear submarine, various countries are mounting new mapping expeditions to claim the most territory they can.

The exclusive economic zone controlled by a country generally extends 230 miles from its shores. But under Article 76, that zone can expand if a nation can convince other parties to the treaty that there is a ''natural prolongation'' of its continental shelf beyond that limit.

The shelf is the relatively shallow extension of a landmass to the point where the bottom drops into the oceanic abyss. But in many places, the drop-off is a gentle slope or is connected to long-submerged ridges that, if precisely mapped, might add thousands of square miles to a country's exploitable seabed.

Claims of expanded territory are being pursued the world over, but the Arctic Ocean is where experts foresee the most conflict. Only there do the boundaries of five nations -- Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States -- converge, the way sections of an orange meet at the stem. (The three other Arctic nations, Iceland, Sweden and Finland, do not have coasts on the ocean.)

''The area does get to be a bit crowded,'' said Peter Croker, chairman of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which assesses claims. It is composed of experts appointed by countries that ratified the treaty.

Disputes over overlapping claims must be worked out by the countries involved, but the commission weighs control over areas that would otherwise remain international waters.  Countries that ratified the treaty before May 13, 1999, have until May 13, 2009, to make claims. Other countries have 10 years from their date of ratification.

Russia adopted the treaty in 1997, and four years later laid claim to nearly half the Arctic Ocean. The commission's technical panel rejected the claim, and now Russia hopes the recent voyage of its research ship Akademik Fyodorov to the North Pole will yield mapping data in its favor.

In June, Denmark and Canada announced that they would conduct a joint surveying project of uncharted parts of the Arctic Ocean near their coasts. Denmark is particularly interested in proving that a 1,000-mile undersea mountain range, the Lomonosov Ridge, is linked geologically to Greenland, which is semiautonomous Danish territory. If it finds such a link, Denmark could make a case that the North Pole belongs to the Danes, Danish officials have said.

Canada could also claim a huge area, and then face challenges from the other Arctic nations. The United States could petition for a swath of Arctic seabed larger than California, according to rough estimates by Dr. Mayer and other scientists. But while the government financed Dr. Mayer's survey, it has not made a definitive move toward staking a claim.

American ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty has repeatedly been blocked by a small group of Republican senators, now led by Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma. They say, among other things, that the treaty would infringe on American sovereignty.
In a Senate hearing last year, Mr. Inhofe said, ''I'm very troubled about implications of this convention on our national security.'' The deadlock has persisted even though the Bush administration in 2002 described ratification of the Law of the Sea and four other treaties as an ''urgent need.''

Many proponents of the treaty, including the Pentagon, the American Petroleum Institute and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, say this paralysis leaves the United States on the sidelines while others carve up an ocean. ''We need to be in the game, at the table, talking about fisheries management, mineral extraction, freedom of navigation,'' said Adm. James D. Watkins, a retired chief of naval operations who is chairman of the United States Commission on Ocean Policy. Mr. McCain said, ''I think what it would require really is a hard push from the president.''

Treaty or no, territorial disputes ultimately imply questions about a country's ability to defend its interests. Here, too, the United States has shown less urgency while Canada has acted more aggressively to ensure sovereignty over a fast-changing domain it had long neglected.

(My apologies for the lengthy excerpt, but I realize that few people here have full access to archived articles from the NYT.  What appears to be a full version of the article was also posted at truthout.org.)

Given the extent of the energy resources up for grabs, as well as extremely valuable fishing rights that will come into play as the arctic ice shelf retreats, some of these competing claims could become rather contentious in the years after 2009.

The original Times article contained an excellent overlay map showing the various claims under different methods of interpretation, but the graphics are not available anymore, unfortunately.

by The Maven on Fri Oct 21st, 2005 at 12:34:33 PM EST
Still life in this thread...
Thanks The Maven, you are very thorough as usual.
Since I am here, I'd like to add one more link; Greenland icecap thickens despite warming
Greenland's icecap has thickened slightly in recent years despite wide predictions of a thaw triggered by global warming, a team of scientists says.
"The overall ice thickness changes are ... approximately plus 5 cms a year or 54 cms over 11 years," according to the experts at Norwegian, Russian and US institutes led by Ola Johannessen at the Mohn Sverdrup centre for Global Ocean Studies and Operational Oceanography in Norway.
However, they said that the thickening seemed consistent with theories of global warming, blamed by most experts on a build-up of heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels in power plants, factories and cars.
Warmer air, even if it is still below freezing, can carry more moisture.
That extra moisture falls as snow below 0 degrees Celsius.

The Arctic may seem distant and forbidding, yet in the years to come there will be a scramble for control.
To get a sense for the place, go read Peter Høeg's 'Ms. Smilla's feeling for Snow' (US: 'Smilla's sense of Snow').  The author was recently diaried at European Tribune - Peter Høeg to publish again.

by ask on Fri Oct 21st, 2005 at 02:39:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Smila is interesting, but out of Høeg's books the most powerful is "The Borderliners".

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Oct 21st, 2005 at 05:30:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Studies such as this one are likely going to be deliberately misconstrued and misreported by the global warming deniers and spun into "If the icecap there is thickening, then all these warnings must have been wrong, and there's really no evidence that global warming is real."

The research, of course, shows that in over large land masses (e.g., Greenland, Antarctica), warmer temperatures will likely cause increased snowfall.  The reason is stated in the next-to-last sentence of your cite.  It's a counterintuitive warning sign, but it doesn't make the potential dangers any less real.

by The Maven on Fri Oct 21st, 2005 at 06:05:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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