Dashing through the snow; the resource race in the Arctic

The race for the Arctic is on. The British Armed Forces carries out an exercise as part of their Arctic flying training in Norway. Source: UK Ministry of Defence, Flickr

The words “Arctic Circle” are usually associated with pictures of husky dogs, polar bears and researchers with icicles in their faces. It is difficult to find connections between the Arctic Circle, submarines, science fiction type snowmobiles, NATO and India. But believe it or not, all of those are entwined.

The Arctic Circle is one of the world’s harshest climates. For most of the year it is cold, dark and altogether hostile for human beings. But, as the earth’s climate warms ice sheets and melts the permafrost it has become easier to explore the region. The melting ice has begun to reveal immense treasure in the form of unexploited oil and gas reserves and rare elements and minerals. These treasures have drawn the Arctic into the eye of world politics as resource-hungry superpowers have started a race to this no man’s land.

Distance to the Arctic is not an obstacle to being visible in Arctic politics. The Arctic Council – a council of the eight states that share borders with the Arctic region and decides on its regional policy – admitted India, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Italy and China to join with permanent observer statuses. China demanded admittance by arguing that they are a “near-Arctic state”. A similar application from the European Union was declined – the European Union supposedly irritated Canada (a member  state of the Arctic Council) by banning the import of seal products into the EU and by wanting to restrict imports of oil from Alberta, Canada.

#501141743 / gettyimages.com. Aerial view of an onshore Arctic oil well drill rig isolated on a frozen snow-covered tundra landscape.

The natural resource treasures in the Arctic are immense. 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30% of undiscovered gas deposits may be hidden in the region. Estimates are that notable amounts of uranium and scandium can be found within the Arctic Circle. Scandium is a rare element, a metal much like titanium but significantly lighter. It is often found near uranium deposits and has been used commercially in the aircraft and weapons industries – for example, the Soviet Union used scandium-reinforced aluminium in their ballistic missiles. Scandium was recently discovered in the Arctic Ocean, which makes the Arctic Ocean the only ocean in the world to contain the element. The discovery indicates the presence of uranium and other minerals in the Arctic Ocean but may also make the ocean an interesting opportunity for gathering scandium alone. Currently the metal is only gathered as a byproduct in a mine in China and some mines in Russia. The only dedicated scandium mine, Zhovty Vody in Ukraine, is flooded. The exploitation of oceans is an attractive option for mining rare elements as the deposits on land are diminishing fast. The world’s largest rare minerals mine, Bayan Obo in China, may already be seeing its reserves depleted.

Whereas the treasures hidden in the Arctic tempt all superpowers, different countries have taken different approaches towards claiming the riches. China is using investments as a way to ensure it will become a strong player in the Arctic: Chinese companies invested $400 million mining and energy in Canada and they have promised to invest $2,3 billion (and 3000 workers) in a mining project in Greenland, the Chinese icebreaker fleet is being expanded and funding for Arctic research in China is being increased. In response to these plans, in 2012 the European Union offered hundreds of millions in development aid to Greenland in exchange for guarantees that China would not get exclusive access to their rare minerals deposits. China also attempted to buy 185 square kilometers of land in northern Iceland but was rejected twice; the Icelanders believed that the Chinese plans for a golf resort were in fact plans for an Arctic port. Meanwhile, Russia and Canada are competing over the territorial ownership of the Arctic. Each of them has made official claims over Arctic regions; Canada even blustered to take the North Pole. Denmark, too, looks to expand its territorial waters north of Greenland. In 2007, two Russian mini submarines planted a Russian flag in the seabed under the North Pole, symbolizing their claims to the riches. Even Finland’s presence in the Arctic waters can be seen in the form of icebreakers supporting offshore oil drilling operations in the Beaufort Sea.

USS Pargo in the Arctic in 1993. Underwater activity in the Arctic may well increase in the future. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Arctic countries haven’t idly waited for decisions on ownership. Military presence in the region is increasing and Russia has made the Arctic a “priority”. The Russian strategy includes building more icebreakers, opening old Soviet air bases, opening 40 naval bases for ships and nuclear attack submarines and building infrastructure. Russia is also developing a new intercontinental ballistic missile that would see the light of day in 2018. In response, the United States has called for cooperation with Canada to form a united front to boost their presence in the region. Canada recently spent $597,000 on stealth-snowmobiles. Although there are currently no reported nuclear warheads in the Arctic Circle, the U.S. has an old nuclear test site on Amchitka, an island southwest of Alaska. As Denmark is a member in NATO, the northernmost NATO airbase is in the Arctic Circle in Greenland.

Bets as well as concerns are high in the Arctic Circle. The investments already made are enormous and so too are the possible profits which indicates a long and hard race north where no side is likely to give up. The opening seaways are welcomed by many but the risks related to Arctic oil drilling are already addressed by, for example, Greenpeace. As the tension is high between Russia and NATO it is fair to speculate if the Arctic is the next arena for conflict for the military powers. And let us not forget about other often voiceless participants in the race: how will the indigenous peoples of the Arctic and Arctic fauna withstand the political and industrial turmoil?

Otso Rajala

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