As Ice Melts, World Powers Vie for Arctic Supremacy

Cairn Energy, operators of the Leiv Eiriksson oil rig, has won permission to drill up to seven oil exploration wells off Greenland's west coast. (Photograph: Greenpeace/AP)

As Ice Melts, World Powers Vie for Arctic Supremacy

Resource depletion feedback loop generates race for previously inaccessible oil, gas, and minerals

The dramatic melting of arctic ice sheets and glaciers caused by climate change is creating a new--and experts warn dangerous--race for oil, gas, and mineral reserves previously not accessible to the world's largest and most powerful countries.

And, as Elisabeth Rosenthal reports for the New York Times, the race for those resources is setting in motion a geopolitical chess match that plays world powers against one another and puts once isolated communities and outposts at the center of an emerging story about how the Arctic's natural treasures will be managed and by whom.

As The Guardian's Damian Carrington wrote this week, warning about the overwhelming evidence of climate change's impact in the arctic and elsewhere. "Our planet is waving the white flag of surrender. But as the polar flag becomes ever more tattered, with holes scorched by hotter ocean waters, humanity pumps ever more globe-warming gases into the air."

"The shrinking ice has not opened new leads for decisive global action to tackle climate change," Carrington lamented. "Instead, in a vicious irony, the new channels are being exploited for oil and gas exploration, unearthing more of the very fuels driving the warming."

And Rosenthal reports:

So far there has been little actual exploitation of Arctic resources. Greenland has only one working mine, though more than 100 new sites are being mapped out. Here, as well as in Alaska, Canada and Norway, oil and gas companies are still largely exploring, although experts estimate that more than 20 percent of the world's oil and gas reserves are in the Arctic. Warmer weather has already extended the work season by a month in many locations, making access easier.

At one point this summer, 97 percent of the surface of Greenland's massive ice sheet was melting. At current rates, Arctic waters could be ice-free in summer by the end of the decade, scientists say.

"Things are happening much faster than what any scientific model predicted," said Dr. Morten Rasch, who runs the Greenland Ecosystem Monitoring program at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Ownership of the Arctic is governed by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, which gives Arctic nations an exclusive economic zone that extends 200 nautical miles from land, and to undersea resources farther away so long as they are on a continental shelf. The far northern Arctic Ocean belongs to no country, and conditions there are severe. In a place where exact boundaries were never much of a concern, haggling over borders has begun among the primary nations -- between Canada and Denmark, and the United States and Canada, for example.

The United States has been hampered in the current jockeying because the Senate has refused to ratify the Convention of the Law of the Sea, even though both the Bush and Obama administrations have strongly supported doing so. This means the United States has not been able to formally stake out its underwater boundaries. "We are being left behind," Deputy Secretary Nides said.

But experts say boundary disputes are likely to be rapidly resolved through negotiation, so that everyone can get on with the business of making money. There is "very little room for a race to grab territory, since most of the resources are in an area that is clearly carved up already," said Kristofer Bergh, a researcher at the Stockholm Institute.

Even so, Arctic nations and NATO are building up military capabilities in the region, as a precaution.

Read the full story here.

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