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What's in a warming Arctic?

Pubali Neogy
·3-min read

Unless we find a way to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the endless ice sheets that characterize the Arctic would all be gone by 2050. This would lead to dramatic rise in sea levels and extreme weather events, warn environmental scientists.

But leaders of powerful nations couldn’t care less. On the contrary, they are banking upon the melting polar ice caps to further their economic and political agendas.

The Arctic circle, it turns out, is not a frozen wasteland after all. Under its centuries-old glacial ice lies something that has been a make or break for nations since the start of the modern era – oil and natural gas.

Around a quarter of the world’s oil and 30 percent of the natural gas is believed to be buried beneath the arctic soil – both onshore and offshore. Add to that a trillion-dollar worth of rare earth minerals, and this region is what you call a veritable treasure trove waiting to be unlocked.

The melting sea ice also means opening up of strategically important shipping routes.

Russia, China, the US, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway are all rushing in to grab the resources and shipping routes.

The race started almost a decade back in 2007 when Russia planted its national flag deep below the North Pole on the seabed to assert its presence in the energy rich Arctic.

In the past couple of years, the race has only intensified, notwithstanding the impact it’s having on the pristine ecosystem, one of the last few in the world.

It all came into the public gaze with the Donald Trump administration floating the idea of buying Greenland. The largest island in the world, almost 80 percent of Greenland is covered in ice, and tourism and fishing are the mainstay of its economy. The island is also home to vast quantities untapped natural resources such as zinc, copper, coal, iron ore and rare minerals. This along with its location with respect to the newly opening North Atlantic shipping lanes has led to the US eyeing it.

And it’s not the only one. China wants a share of it too since the island can be a strategic way-station for its envisaged polar silk road, something it’s carving through the Arctic ice with its jumbo ice-breakers for an easy passage of its goods.

Leading the race, however, is Russia. It owns some 40 ice breakers, some of them nuclear powered, to smash through the impossibly thick ice. This has enabled it to steadily increase its cargo shipment, mainly of energy resources extracted from the region.

Such a high-stakes race for the Arctic has naturally set the stage for territorial claims in the cold, desolate stretches of the northern-most part of the planet. Nations are vying with each other for the exclusive economic zones that lie beyond their default maritime borders that extend 200 nautical miles off their coast.

Russia, which has the longest Arctic coastline and sees almost 10 percent of its GDP coming from north of Arctic circle, has emerged as the biggest player; it has long sought economic and military dominance in this part of the world.

To gain access the exploits of the race, China, whose northern-most part is almost 900 miles from the Arctic circle, has heavily invested in many of Russia’s oil and gas projects in the region.

Most recently, the US which states that it’s already late to the party, announced its resolve to lease land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil companies, once again kicking up the debate on environmental protection versus economic development.

But the trillion-dollar question is: Are such big bets really worth it?

Given the glut in oil and gas production, the COVID-19 pandemic leading to nosediving oil prices, the interest in renewables and the massive environmental damage Arctic drilling is causing, there’s enough of reason to think otherwise.