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Arctic's Hot Issues

This Article was originally published on the Arctic Climate Change Emerging Leaders (ACCEL) blog.

By Eleanora Milazzo 

An ever-changing Arctic

Over the last decade, a number of key events have shaped the future of the Arctic. Climate change, in particular, has triggered renewed international attention for Arctic issues.

First, the release of the U.S. Geological Survey Report in 2008 marked a reassessment of the Arctic’s energy potential. Estimations of untapped resources in the region were amplified by the media and boosted new investment plans and projects.

Second, data concerning rampant climate change and progressive reduction of the summer ice cap contributed to the perception that the Arctic would quickly turn into a navigable ocean, opening up new possibilities of trans-Arctic shipping. According to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, the ice cap of the Arctic Ocean reached its lowest level in 2012 since the first observations made by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1979. As of September 2012, 40 percent of the sea ice in the Central Arctic Ocean had melted. In future, this ice gap will open up navigable routes connecting the Arctic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean along the Northern Sea Route, and through the Northwest Passage.

Finally, the Arctic also faces increased political pressures; for example, during their Arktika expedition in 2007, the Russian explorer Chilingarov planted a Russian flag on the continental shelf under the North Pole in a gesture that was widely seen as a threat to sovereignty of the other Arctic states and, importantly, as the start of a global ‘race to the Arctic.’

Economic opportunities connected to climate change and strategic concerns are said to be at stake in the Arctic. Yet, even if state and non-state actors are now looking at the Arctic with renewed interest, the true nature of the race to the Arctic remains unexplored.

A race to the Arctic?

Legal vacuum

Over the last few years, the Arctic has made news headlines because of the need to improve and define the area’s legal framework. However, the perception that the Arctic is a ‘no man’s land’ ready to be exploited is deceiving. In the Arctic, as defined here, there is no such thing as a legal vacuum.

All provisions that are part of the Law of the Sea apply to the Arctic marine areas, as they would in any other marine environment. The same is true for marine areas covered in ice once they melted. Moreover, the mandate of the global bodies associated with these instruments covers the Arctic too. To that end, boundaries of national sovereignty at sea are set out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) framework. Disputes concerning boundaries and sovereignty have always been or are being solved by the Arctic states in a cooperative manner. Rather than a legal vacuum, gaps in legal instruments and implementation at lower levels pose the real challenge to Arctic governance.

An Arctic cold war?

This year has featured an unprecedented number of incidents between Arctic states on a range of international issues. In particular, Russia, the largest Arctic state, and Western countries, including other Arctic countries, have faced a crisis in their relations as a consequence of events in Ukraine (Crimea). Despite these tensions, actors have managed to keep Arctic dialogue alive.

Claims relating to an Arctic arms race should be reassessed as well. Beyond alarmism, from the military point of view, we are only witnessing a limited modernization and expansion of military installations in the Arctic, and investment preferences seem to be driven by ‘softer’ security concerns, including human and environmental safety, enforcement of national sovereignty rather than for aggressive purposes.

Climate change is the real challenge

What is the impact of climate change in the Arctic?

Climate and weather conditions are across the planet yet some places are more affected than others. The Arctic is melting and its ecosystems and the people living there are affected by these developments. Thawing permafrost impacts harvesting activities on which indigenous peoples heavily depend. Animal species and biodiversity will inevitably change in their composition. This is not a negative trend per se, but it will certainly have negative impacts on the long-term equilibrium of ecosystems. Reduced sea ice will also mean increased economic activity, fishing, oil and gas drilling, navigation, and shipping. All these human activities have an impact on wildlife, vegetation, and the lifestyle of indigenous peoples.

We already mentioned that the case of Arctic climate change also opens up new economic opportunities. The challenge therefore consists of dealing with changes and turning them into an opportunity for both present and future generations. Although most strategies remain in development, these should entail appropriate mitigation and adaptation measures, as well as the effective inclusion of indigenous knowledge.

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Eleanora Milazzo is a European ACCEL fellow.

[Photos courtesy of Dayanita Ramesh]

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