As ice disappears, commercial opportunities come into view

Arctic Sea ice

Arctic Sea Ice. Photo Credit: NASA/GSFC

By Jens Wardenaer, Research Analyst and Editorial Assistant

The annual summer minimum for Arctic sea ice has been declining faster than expected, with this year marking a record low.

On 16 September, Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979, according to preliminary figures from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre. At 3.41 million square metres, this year’s melt beat the previous 2007 record by 760,000 square kilometres. But while the decline of sea-ice extent is the most visible metric of climate change in the Arctic, another trend is even more worrying. For the third straight summer the total volume of ice set a new record low, and is now only 20% of the 2000 level.

It is too early to say whether this will be an annual phenomenon, but the speed of the melt has already exceeded prognoses. The record for minimum ice extent was already reached on 26 August, nearly one month earlier than the 2007 record. According to scientists, the rate of decline is faster than any models have been able to capture. Most experts previously thought it possible that the Arctic would be ice-free in the summer by 2050; now more and more scientists believe that may occur as soon as 2030, or even before 2020. Read the rest of this entry »

Cooperation not conflict in the Arctic

Map: Overlapping Sovreignty Claims in the Arctic

By Christian Le Mière, Research Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security

Contrary to the narrative of recent press reports suggesting that the melting Arctic could mean the end of the geopolitical order as we know it, the clear message to emerge during the various events thus far held under the rubric of the IISS’ Forum for Arctic Climate Change and Security is that cooperation rather than conflict may come to define the developing situation in the High North.

As sea ice retreats in the Arctic, analysis of the region’s military balance has become more frequent. While an important issue, as demonstrated by the Military Balance 2012 (click on map for a larger view), this is not necessarily owing to the probability that the littoral countries are going to descend into some kind of regional conflict. Rather, a growing military and paramilitary presence in the Arctic may be beneficial for regional stability rather than detrimental.

This is because the various littoral countries already share strategic goals in the High North: to expand trade, protect the environment, extract resources and police new sea areas. Given the vast tracts of ocean and the difficult operating conditions, military and paramilitary cooperation may be key to ensuring safe and secure commercial activity in the Arctic. It is no coincidence that the first international accord signed under the auspices of the Arctic Council was a search-and-rescue agreement.

With this in mind, the IISS hopes to foster broader dialogue among the Arctic and near-Arctic states to discuss ways in which military and paramilitary organisations can coordinate and collaborate. Although the region involves traditional rivals such as Russia and a number of NATO states, while rising powers such as China are increasingly interested in the Arctic shipping routes, there is scope for closer relationships in the Arctic.

The US in the Arctic: policy not strategy

Members of the Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station clear ice from the hatch of the attack submarine USS Annapolis (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tiffini M. Jones/Released)

The United States doesn’t so much have a strategy in the Arctic as simple policies on the region – as Washington has not yet undertaken a comprehensive assessment of national interests and capabilities in the High North. This was one of the messages to emerge from a talk at the IISS last week by Sherri Goodman, General Counsel of CNA and Executive Director of CNA’s Military Advisory Board.

Goodman pointed out that the most recent relevant policy of note was the 2009 Arctic Roadmap, jointly developed by the US navy and coastguard. The roadmap’s goal was to ensure naval readiness and capability, and to promote maritime security in the Arctic. Key elements included increasing operational experience, promoting partnerships and improving environmental understanding.

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Norway to freeze China out of the Arctic?

By Jens Wardenaer, Research Analyst and Editorial Assistant

Relations have been frosty between Oslo and Beijing since October 2010, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded a jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, that year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Is the two countries’ row now spilling over into the Arctic, a strategic region in which China has a growing interest?

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Greenland: rare earth in the Arctic

Kangaamiut, Greenland. Photo from ilovegreenland/Greenland Tourism

By Sarah Johnstone, Assistant editor, online

A weak Greenland could offer major powers like China and the United States a back door into the Arctic region, Dr Damien Degeorges said during a recent talk at the IISS. Rich in resources, covering a vast area but sparsely populated, the autonomous Danish territory would need to ensure its long-term economic viability as it moved towards full independence. It also needed to raise educational levels and make arrangements for its future defence.

Half the size of Europe, Greenland had enough of the rare-earth elements vital to many high-tech devices to supply an estimated 25% of global requirements for 50 years, Degeorges said. The island was becoming ‘a hypermarket of natural resources’ as a warming climate melted the ice sheet and made mining easier.

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The Arctic ‘race for cooperation’

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt speaks on Arctic security

By Sarah Johnstone, Assistant editor, online

Russia’s planting of a flag under the North Pole in 2007 was a ‘magnificent’ bit of PR, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said at the IISS this week, but it wasn’t typical of international relations in the Arctic.

At the launch of the institute’s Forum for Arctic Climate Change and Security, Bildt highlighted the need for nations and companies to work together in the polar region. Rapid climate change – twice as fast in the Arctic than elsewhere – was opening up new maritime routes and opportunities for resources exploration. However, he insisted, it remained a harsh environment that made cooperation necessary.

This relatively benign assessment surprised some of his London audience, one of whom said the issue of Arctic security normally in the UK focused warily on what the Russians were doing. Bildt admitted that Vladimir Putin’s election manifesto was ‘not entirely in tune with what I’m saying’. However, he stuck by his earlier assertion that the Arctic region had become much less militarised since the end of the Cold War.

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