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published on 19 February 2018 in water

Arctic: a new cold war?

“You never really know your friends from your enemies until the ice breaks.” Inuit proverb

When passing this proverb down from generation to generation, the Inuit probably did not realise that, one day, it would be the ice of the Arctic, that is of the region of the Earth that circles the North Pole, that would break. Unlike the Antarctic, the Arctic is not a continent, it does not have a well-defined extension and is composed of the northernmost reaches of the European, Asian and American continents, and by the frozen Arctic Ocean that forms the ice pack (the well-known floating sea ice). The Arctic is conventionally considered to include everything north of the Arctic Circle and, that is, more than 66°33’39’’ north of the equator.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard Archipelago

The Northwest Passage and the northern sea route
What has been most talked about in recent times has been above all the Northwest Passage – the sea route that, hugging the northern part of the American continent, connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean – and the “northern sea route” (also known as the Northeast Passage), connecting Europe and Asia through the Arctic Ocean. Over the past two decades, in fact, the dismal climate “records” that have led to melting of the polar ice have set off a veritable race to conquer the Arctic, attracting the attention of numerous governments and opening up the way to numerous vessels.

Map of the Arctic. Showing the Northwest Passage and the Northeast Passage

One of the records reported on the front pages of all the newspapers in 2012 was that of The World,  the first cruise ship to sail through the Northwest Passage. In the following year, the Nordic Orion won the record as the first large cargo vessel to sail the same route for commercial purposes, with the aim of transporting cargo from the Canadian port of Vancouver to the Finnish port of Pori, saving around 1850 Km (and 60 thousand Euro of fuel) as compared to the usual route through the Panama Canal. In the summer of 2017, on the contrary, it was the turn of the Russian oil tanker, Christophe de Margerie, the first ship to sail along the so-called “northern sea route” without the help of an icebreaker. The vessel, owned by the Russian Government, left Norway and arrived in South Korea after only 19 days, therefore taking about two thirds of the time normally required to sail the “usual” route through the Suez Canal.
In this historical period, in which technology and scientific progress make it seem as though anything can be achieved, events like these risk going unnoticed without stirring our imagination. Yet if we stop to think, it is easy to understand how they leave a deep mark on the history of mankind and the planet, redrawing the geography of trade and mapping out new balances and new powers on the geopolitical chessboard. To understand the importance of these changes, it is enough to consider that, for example, it is estimated that, sometime around 2023, the Northwest Passage could be used by about 25% of global cargo traffic, while according to the Russian Ministry of Transport, traffic through the Northeast Passage could increase tenfold by 2020.

Cargo ship surrounded by ice

Arctic: climate changes and new economical interests
The Arctic is one of the regions of the Earth most sensitive to climate changes for very many reasons, including the fact that global warming has a very significant impact on the ice pack, on terrestrial glaciers and on the permafrost (frozen land). Melting of these various types of ice has repercussions on the whole ecosystem, local and global, with  impacts on the physical, chemical and biological processes of the Arctic and the whole planet (think, for example, of the effects on marine currents!). The changes in progress are highly complex and are influenced considerably by each other, while the building of models that are able to forecast precisely what will happen in the future, both at regional and global level, is very ambitious even for scientists.
Yet one thing is certain: climate changes are radically modifying the way in which governments, industries and traders all around the world are considering a piece of the world that is increasingly more important and attractive for the economies of the various countries. We have already talked about the new navigable routes that depletion and melting of the ice (it is predicted that there will be a reduction of approximately 40% in the thickness of Arctic ice in just half a century) are opening up and of the interest for the northern shipping routes, which in some cases, compared to the usual ones, make it possible to save time and money. But that’s not all. For example, energy resources that for millions of years have remained hidden and unexplored under the blanket of ice (sometimes several kilometres thick), due to global warming and new extraction techniques, are now accessible at lower costs. And these are not minor matters: according to a number of estimates published by CNR (the Italian National Research Council), oil resources present in the Arctic region are equal to around 13% of undiscovered global oil resources while, where gas is concerned, this percentage increases to as much as 30%.

A polar bear amid the ice in the Svalbard Archipelago

Governance and geopolitics
These economic interests are part of a rather difficult context of governance of the Arctic. The differences between the Arctic and Antarctic are not just geographical, geological and biological. Unlike the Antarctic, in fact, the Arctic is not governed by a special international treaty, even though the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum in which Italy takes part with Observer status, was set up in 1996 to focus on the government of the Arctic and of the indigenous communities. There are 8 countries that have land in the Arctic region: Canada, Denmark (Greenland and the Faeroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and USA and, from the point of view of international law, UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) provides that each Nation can define the extension of its shelf within 200 nautical miles (corresponding to about 370 km) where it can exclusively exploit the natural resources (exclusive economic zone, EEZ). An extension of this limit may be submitted, provided that it is within 350 nautical miles, to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).

Trans-Alaska, oil pipeline

Despite international law, however, there is no lack of disputes, and often they take little or no account of the wishes of the indigenous populations. To us, it may seem impossible that someone should live in such a hostile climate, but thousands of people, mainly belonging to eight different native populations inhabit the Arctic: the most famous of these are the Inuit, but there are also the Yupik, Aleut, Yakut, Komi, Nency, Tungusic and Sami (see the map). Not only the countries adjacent to the Arctic wish to get their hands on it: China too, for example, is investing a great deal in this region and is signing various agreements to develop a gas pipeline and other infrastructures that will make it possible to transport natural gas from the North Slope in Alaska to the whole China.
Without any doubt, we can say that the climate changes have very important direct and indirect effects on the lives of the local communities, but also on the global geopolitical set-up.
According to some, we are facing an authentic cold war. In every sense…

Anna Pellizzone

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