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On Thin Ice

Brandon Lauren

An investigation into the warming international feud over territorial claims in the Arctic Circle, what it means for the treasure trove of natural resources residing below the ice, and what it entails for future global diplomacy.

A 6.4 million square mile cocoon of sea ice - up to 15 feet deep - fluctuating with the seasons, gradually disappearing in both area and depth. A 4.4 million square mile husk of Arctic tundra, quickly melting to expose the long-stored natural gases it sequestered. It’s hard to believe that the Arctic Circle will ever be the source of an argument more controversial than the one on climate change it is already embroiled in. We tune into Our Planet; Frozen World listening to the palpable hope of Sir David Attenbourough and we dream of a world where the baby Harp seal and the wandering albatross chick can live outside of the shadow of a ticking timer. For many, the Arctic has become synonymous with the urgent need for reform.

For the Arctic Council however, this land of overstuffed cotton balls that breathe and wind-blown hatchlings is equated to not much more than the dollar sign.

The Arctic Council is a group of eight countries that both border, or have since laid claims to, maritime territory contained within the premises of the Arctic Circle. These countries include the United States, Canada, the Russian Federation, Sweden, the Kingdom of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Finland. Formed in 1996 with the signing of the Ottawa Declaration to “enhance cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States with the active involvement of Arctic Indigenous Peoples and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues.” (Arctic Council), the international body has done much in coordinating maritime boundaries and shipping lane ownership and - in recent years - helped promote strength among the Inuit with the formation of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

However, as sea ice ranges recede, a brewing conflict threatens to disturb this long mantained status of tranquility in the far-flung reaches of our planet. And it all comes down to money.

The U.S.Geological Survey estimates that anywhere from around 90-160 billion barrels of oil remain held under the waters of the Arctic Circle, accounting for more than 13% of the world’s remaining reserves. On top of this, more than 30% of the world’s remaining natural gas stores are located in the frozen perma-frost shell of the Arctic Tundra. Although recent years have seen an increased interest in renewable sources of energy, oil and natural gas still remain ingrained as the frontrunners in energy production.

This is where the conflict arises, in part. Whoever controls the most of the Arctic Circle has 1) The ability to mine for more natural resources and 2) More influence on the region when it comes to policy and trade. In short, the country that foundates its claim on the most land wields the most power in the region. And certain countries seem poised to take advantage of the relatively scant regulations currently present in the Arctic. Recent years have seen the proliferation of Russia’s nuclear-capable submarine fleet, icebreakers, and natural resource extraction operations along it’s 15,000 mile Arctic coastline according to a report by Politico. It has also done much to expand its possessions over the Transpolar Sea Route, a vital shipping lane that should open by 2035. While no actual conflicts have arisen yet, global think tanks already consider the Arctic Cirlce one of the largest threats to future world diplomacy. As to what will happen, much like the Arctic’s more famous debate on climate change:

Only time will tell.


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