Global warming might be an environmental catastrophe, but countries eyeing the North Pole also see it as an opportunity.
“We’ve never had a situation where an ocean has appeared overnight,” says Rob Huebert, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, who studies Arctic security issues. “The ice kept everybody out, and now all of a sudden the ice is going to be gone. So what happens?”
Maybe a 21st-century version of the Great Game, which Russia and Britain played among the mountains and deserts of Central Asia in the 19th century. The prize then was the riches of India; today, it’s new shipping routes and untapped natural resources, including an estimated 13 percent of the earth’s oil and 30 percent of its natural gas.
Russia’s in the game again, dispatching submarines into the Arctic Ocean to gather geological samples and, in 2007, planting a titanium flag to metaphorically support the claim that much of the seafloor—as far as the North Pole itself—is an extension of Siberia’s continental shelf. That would expand Russia’s borders to cover some five billion tons of oil and natural gas.
China, 900 miles from the Arctic Circle, isn’t in a position to claim territory, but the world’s largest energy consumer is investing billions in Canadian oil and gas projects. Beijing has also ex- pressed a sudden desire to join the once-obscure Arctic Council. The organization—whose members include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States and representatives of indigenous Arctic peoples—was founded in 1996 to promote environmental protection and maritime safety. But with so much natural wealth at stake, the council’s policies are increasingly critical.
Now Canada, next up to chair the Arctic Council, may support China’s effort to participate in council deliberations, though Beijing wouldn’t have a vote. “There’s uneasiness with China, at a certain level, but how do you say that politely?” asks Huebert. What’s delicate is that stronger Canadian ties to China could strain U.S.-Canada relations.
The United States and its northern neighbor are also at odds over the Northwest Passage, a storied route along Arctic North America that became free of ice along its entire length for the first time in August 2007. The passage is at least 4,000 miles shorter than the usual sea route through the Panama Canal, and cuts travel time by two weeks—a potential boon to major exporters like China. While Canada insists that part of the passage falls within its borders, the United States and Europe counter that it’s an international waterway.
On the other side of the Arctic Ocean, Russia claims ownership of the Northeast Passage, which, since 2008, has been consistently navi- gable during the summer and early fall, allowing ships to take a shortcut between Asia and Europe. In 2011, two Finnish tankers navigated the passage, demon- strating the potential for faster transport of oil to Pacific countries.
But don’t expect new Arctic gushers anytime soon. Some energy companies have canceled exploration programs because of high costs, and engineers are struggling to design technology that can withstand the harshest northern environments. Even as the ice melts, the Arctic will not give up its riches easily.