Arctic Wealth And Why Countries Are Jockeying Over The Roof Of The World
The arctic region comprises an ocean bordered by islands owned by Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway and Denmark (through Greenland, a self-governing Danish territory).
by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) Aug 02, 2007
Global warming and, ironically, its main cause -- fossil fuels -- explain the intensifying squabble to claim rights over the Arctic seabed. Around a quarter of the world's oil reserves are locked up below the Arctic Ocean, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS). The Arctic floor is also home to massive gas fields which are virtually unexploited, including those in the Barents Sea and in particular the Russian Shtokman field, which has reserves estimated at a staggering 3,200 billion cubic meters (113,006 billion cubic feet).
This tempting treasure was previously way out of reach, for the ice that swathed the ocean's surface made prospection, drilling, pumping and storage technically impossible or astronomically costly.
Now, though, the icy shield is shrinking fast as atmospheric temperatures, stoked by the greenhouse effect, steadily rise.
Added to the hydrocarbon allure is the prospect of a new Northwest Passage along the roof of the world that would be open year-round to shipping, providing a lucrative short-cut between Asia and Europe.
"By 2040 or 2050, the Arctic Ocean will be navigable and that will mean significant developments very soon," Martin Fortier, a Canadian researcher who heads ArticNet, which studies the effects of climate change in the far north, said in January.
The Earth's far south, Antarctica, is a continent-sized chunk of land where human activity and national claims are regulated by an international treaty, signed in 1961 as a result of research conducted in the 1957 International Polar Year.
In 2007, another International Polar Year is underway but no such accord seems in prospect for the Arctic.
The region comprises an ocean bordered by islands owned by Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway and Denmark (through Greenland, a self-governing Danish territory).
Russia on Thursday said it had planted its flag on the ocean floor at the site of the North Pole, in an operation undertaken by lawmakers aboard a midget submarine that descended 4,261 metres (13,980 feet) below the surface.
The expedition, ostensibly for scientific reasons, aims to establish that a tongue of seabed known as the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of Russia's landmass.
It would strengthen Moscow's claim over sub-sea rights extending to the Pole, made in 2001 to a UN commission.
Norway and Denmark are conducting territorial surveys of their own, while last month Canada announced it would spend 7.4 billion Canadian dollars (7.1 billion US) to build as many as eight armed ice-breaking naval ships to patrol its claim to the Arctic.
"Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it," Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said then.
Over the past five years, a flurry of scientific studies has said that winter sea ice in the Arctic has thinned and the extent of summer sea ice has retreated.
By 2040, "only a small amount of perennial sea ice" will remain along the northern coasts of Greenland and Canada in summer, the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) said last December.
The cause: warmer temperatures, amplified by a vicious circle that climatologists term "positive feedback." Ice reflects sunlight, but when it melts, that leaves a patch of open sea. Because sea is dark, it absorbs solar radiation, which thus leads to more ice loss.
"The polar regions are increasingly recognised as being... geopolitically and economically important (and) extremely vulnerable to current and projected climate change," the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in April.