Antarctica and the Arctic: A polar primer for the new great game
Antarctica and the Arctic are the focus of global hunger for untapped resources – and global warming has helped drive the polar rush.
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The 2007 cruise was mapping an undersea rise called the Lomonosov Ridge, which stands as tall as the Alps and spans the Arctic Ocean from Greenland to Russia. Rocks dredged up from the ridge suggest it is several hundred million years older than the surrounding seafloor – suggesting that it represents a fragment of crust torn from the edge of one continent or another. That's why Canada, Greenland, and Russia each claim that the ridge represents an extension of their own continental shelf.Skip to next paragraph
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The stakes are high. If you lay claim to the Lomonosov Ridge, says Dr. Marcussen, "you can extend your claim all the way to the North Pole." (The three countries will submit their competing claims to an international commission within several years.)
It's easy to imagine that such dueling claims could trigger military tension. After all, the resource rushes to Spitsbergen were punctuated by geopolitical conflict: Whalers from competing countries demolished each other's factories. But Dr. Avango distills a different insight from 400 years of history. He points out that when conflicts erupted in Spitsbergen, they were quickly settled: English and Dutch whalers agreed to divide the island.
The current Arctic scramble "is not a move toward conflict," concludes Avango. Instead, it is "leading to a greater will from the competitors there to come to agreement and draw borders as soon as possible so that they can go on and make some money."
In one recent example, a decades-long boundary dispute between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea was finally settled in 2010 – just as energy companies were exploring the area for oil and gas.
Russia has also opened its long-guarded Northern Sea Route (NSR), lowering its fees to encourage international traffic and turn the route into a moneymaker. This, more than any reduction in sea ice, was what set the stage for the cross-Arctic transit by the Nordic Barents in 2010, says Jon Edvard Sundnes, chief executive officer of Tschudi Shipping Company in Oslo, which spearheaded the voyage.
When the Barents finally unloaded its ore in Lianyungang, China, it had shortened its voyage by 5,500 miles and 16 days compared with the standard route through the Mediterranean Sea and Suez Canal. Use of the NSR has expanded since then: 46 ships crossed in 2012, and at least 60 did so in 2013.
Contrary to public perception, the NSR won't become a superhighway anytime soon for teddy bears, blenders, or anything else carried in shipping containers. Large container ships reinforced against ice aren't available. Traffic on the frontier route has included iron ore, coal, and phosphorus minerals used to make fertilizer – materials mined in northern Norway, Sweden, or Russia, and consumed in China, Japan, or South Korea. Liquefied natural gas is also traveling in tankers across the NSR: Lower gas prices in the US, due to shale gas extraction, have pushed European companies toward using the route to deliver their gas to Asia, where it can net five times the price in the US.
"We are speaking about shipping companies availing themselves of short-term opportunities," says Arild Moe, who studies Arctic and Russian commerce at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Lysaker, Norway. Whether or not the NSR becomes a mainstay of world shipping will depend on Russia funding improvements: producing better maps of its notoriously shallow seafloor; building deep-water ports so larger, more cost-effective ships can pass through; and maintaining its dwindling fleet of half a dozen nuclear-powered icebreakers. Doing this may serve Russia's strategic interests by improving its ability to export its own raw materials.
"If you look at the northern region there are enormous resources of minerals," says Mr. Sundnes. "But logistics and export has been an issue." Russia maintains the world's largest nickel mine at the Arctic city of Norilsk. And then, of course, there is oil and natural gas.