Until recently, few people gave much thought to the hostile northerly territories known as the Arctic Circle. Aside from some brave polar bears and indigenous peoples, it was largely considered a dead zone. But rapidly melting ice shelves due to rising global temperatures has challenged those notions, as once-frozen shipping lanes are opening up, as well as the potential for tapping into the largest non-renewable energy resources in the world.
One quarter of the world's reserves of oil and gas are believed to lie beneath the Arctic Ocean.
Although some observers insist it is self-defeating to discuss the economic advantages of disappearing Arctic ice (since this unprecedented phenomenon may have a severe impact on present weather patterns, thereby rendering all economic advantages potentially irrelevant), this has not stopped five nations – Canada, Norway, Demark, Russia and the United States – from laying claim to the treasure trove of resources buried deep below the surface of this inhospitable land.
The changing dynamics of a changing planet are now responsible for bringing together over 300 specialists on the Arctic region in Moscow to take part in an international forum entitled, "The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue".
The stated purpose of the two-day forum is "to search for ways for developing international contacts and approving the Arctic as a zone of peace and co-operation."
The Arctic's Wealth of Resources
"The Arctic contains a wealth of petroleum and mineral resources. Currently, the region produces about one tenth of the world’s oil and a quarter of its natural gas. The Russian Arctic is the source for about 80 percent of this oil and virtually all of the natural gas; Arctic Canada, Alaska, and Norway are the other leading producers. Recent appraisals suggest that a considerable fraction of the world’s undiscovered petroleum reserves lie within the Arctic.
The most developed sector of the region, the Russian Arctic also holds abundant deposits of nickel, copper, coal, gold, uranium, tungsten, and diamonds. As well, the North American Arctic contains pockets of uranium, copper, nickel, iron, natural gas, and oil. However, many known mineral reserves have not been exploited because of their inaccessibility and the steep development costs.
Biological resources are similarly bountiful in the Far North. An estimated one-fifth of freshwater and several of the world’s largest rivers are found there. The region encompasses one of the last and most extensive, continuous wilderness areas on Earth, and it is home to hundreds of endemic species of plants and animals. Millions of migratory birds from around the globe breed and live seasonally in the Arctic and a variety of marine mammals inhabit the regional ocean waters. Fish such as salmon, cod, and pollock abound in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, supporting valuable commercial fisheries. Some two dozen major herds of reindeer and caribou, important resources for indigenous peoples, migrate across high northern landscapes. In sum, humans gain much from the Arctic’s living resources, and the region is uniquely important to global biodiversity.
Climate change in the Far North is expected to transform the outlook on natural resources there. As rising temperatures accelerate the melting of ice on land and at sea, the prospects for expanding transportation corridors, mineral resource development, and tourism will grow. At the same time living resources will face new pressures. Future developments could well bring considerable new wealth to Arctic state economies, but also significant consequences for northern peoples and environments."
"Such dialogue is critically important. The Arctic is a common space for all countries of the region. It is also closely integrated into the economy of our country," Alexander Bedritsky, Russian presidential adviser on climate change, told reporters.
This may be of particular concern to Russia as it has just passed through its hottest summer – complete with scorching drought and wildfires – in many years.
The diverse number of international organizations represented at the Arctic forum, which include the World Bank, the Arctic Council, the World Wildlife Fund and the European Environment Agency, is testament to the significance the Arctic region has gained in just the last few years.
Among the hundreds of foreign participants are Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, Prince Albert II of Monaco, French Ambassador Michel Rocard, Steven Bigras, executive director of Canadian Polar Commission, and representatives of the foreign ministries of the Arctic countries.
Russian participants include Prime Minister Vladimir Putin; Emergency Situations Minister and President of the Russian Geographical Society Sergey Shoigu; Sergey Kharyuchi, president of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Russian Far-East; Artur Chilingarov, special envoy of the Russian President for International Co-operation in the Arctic and Antarctic; and Vladimir Mulyak, vice-president of the LUKOIL oil company.
In 2001, Moscow argued its case before a UN commission that waters off its northern coast were an extension of its maritime territory. The claim was based on the argument that an underwater mountain range, known as the Lomonosov Ridge, was actually an extension of Russia’s vast continental territory.
The UN panel, however, rejected the claim, advising Russia to resubmit with more evidence.
And Russia did exactly that. In August 2007, a team of Russian explorers organized a spectacular trip to the very depths of the Arctic Ocean. The mission, led by explorer and Duma member Artur Chilingarov, planted the country's tricolor on the seabed 4,200m (14,000ft) below the North Pole to bolster Moscow's claims to the Arctic.
The titanium metal flag was delivered by explorers traveling in two mini-submarines, and the event produced every bit of Russian pride and patriotism as did the Americans’ moon landing about four decades earlier.
"This may sound grandiloquent but for me this is like placing a flag on the moon, this is really a massive scientific achievement," Sergey Balyasnikov, a spokesman for Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Institute, told Reuters news agency.
Chilingarov said the flag would be a permanent mark of Russia's presence at the pole.
"If a hundred or a thousand years from now someone goes down to where we were, they will see the Russian flag," he told Russian media.
Not all observers, however, were so excited about Russia’s achievement.
Canada, which also claims territory in the Arctic, was infuriated by the mission.
"This isn't the 15th Century," Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay told the CTV channel.
"You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory.'"
Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met his Canadian counterpart, Lawrence Cannon, in Moscow to discuss each side’s claims to the contested Lomonosov Ridge.
Following their meeting, both agreed that the UN should rule on the issue.
According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, members of the so-called “Arctic Ocean Five” can claim exclusive economic rights to resources on or beneath the sea floor up to 200 nautical miles (370km) beyond their respectable continental territory.
However, if the continental shelf of a particular nation goes beyond that distance, the country must provide evidence before a UN commission, which will then determine the validity of the claims.
Last week, Russia reached an agreement with Norway on demarcating their Arctic border in the Barents Sea.
"This is a historic milestone," Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement following a signing ceremony held in Murmansk with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the two countries' foreign ministers.
The final agreement, which is subject to approval by the countries' parliaments, brings to an end a 40-year dispute over a 175,000-sq.-km section of the Arctic Ocean that has been a source of contention between Moscow and Oslo. The agreement divides the area roughly in half.
"The treaty resolves what for several decades remained the most important outstanding issue between Norway and Russia," Stoltenberg stated. "It sends an important signal to the rest of the world – the Arctic is a peaceful region where any issues that arise are resolved in accordance with international law."
The Norway-Russia agreement should provide motivation to the other members of the Arctic Ocean Five to come to a peaceable agreement over the contested Arctic lands without another modern-day “Cold War” breaking out over dwindling energy resources as opposed to political ideology.
Yuri Trutnev, Russia's natural resources minister, said on Tuesday his country’s Arctic territories contain up to 100 billion tons of oil and gas. He added that Russia will spend up to 2 billion rubles (US$64 million) on research to prove its territorial claims in the Arctic.