Climate change opens new challenges and opportunities in the Northern Pole

For centuries, explorers searched for a route linking Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Today, climate change is making it possible by melting the thick ice cap of the Northern Pole, a scenario of a new military, energetic, and commercial strategic competition between major powers

Climate change opens new challenges and opportunities in the Northern Pole
General view of sea ice near the Global Seed Vault in Longyearbyen - Photo: Peter Vermeij/REUTERS
English 21/06/2019 15:43 Gabriel Moyssen Mexico City Actualizada 19:20
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For centuries, bold explorers and navigators searched for a route to link Europe, Asia, and the Americas; today, climate change is making it possible by melting the thick ice cap of the Northern Pole, a scenario of a new military, energetic, and commercial strategic competition between major powers.

Virtually ignored by Western media, earlier this month Russia introduced a set of rules for the passage of foreign warships along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) that runs on its 6,200-kilometer Arctic coastal region.

If the captain of a foreign destroyer wants to enter the NSR, for example, he is required to notify the Russian Navy 45 days in advance.

Also, submarines are required to pass the NSR only in the surface position; in addition to the information about the time, the commander is obliged to report the submarine type, its displacement, power plant type, and equipment.

According to, a Russian marine pilot will need to stay on board a foreign warship. If the vessel is poorly maintained or may pollute waterways of the Northern Sea Route, Moscow has a reason to deny the authorization to access the zone.

The rules, that in fact denies the western allies the ability to perform “freedom of navigation” operations as the United States Navy is doing regularly in contested areas of the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf, are only the new part of Russia’s preparations to defend its Arctic sovereignty since at least 2001.

Eighteen years ago, Moscow argued before the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) that waters off its northern coast were an integral part of its maritime territory.

The claim was based on the argument that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of its continental shelf (Siberia), yet it was rejected and Russia told to resubmit with more scientific evidence.

However, in 2007 two Russian mini-submarines planted their nation’s flag on the seabed 4,200 meters below the Lomonosov Ridge to back up Moscow’s claims, since the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea—promoted by Mexico and other countries in 1982 and yet to be ratified by the U.S.—grants an increase of a country’s exclusive economic zone from 200 km to 563 km if it proves that the seabed its an extension of its continental shelf.

In recent years, Russia has supplemented its claim—amounting to 1.2 million square kilometers—with new hydrographic data.

Other nations have similarly been collecting data to support their own pending claims.

In 2014, Denmark, which controls Greenland, the world’s biggest island, claimed 906,495 sq. km of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean, in an area larger than Texas.

Scientific evidence

For its part, Canada submitted 2,100 pages of scientific evidence to the CLCS on May 2019 to prove that the continental shelf from the High Arctic islands extends past 370 km from its shore.

It includes a contested section of the seafloor that stretches from Ellesmere Island along an undersea ridge to the North Pole and more than 200 km past it.

With the longest Arctic shoreline, Russia’s Northern Fleet launched major drills in 2013 deploying four nuclear icebreakers, one heavy nuclear missile cruiser, and two amphibious assault ships to reopen the airport of Kotelny Island, abandoned after the Cold War.

Nowadays, the Euroasiatic superpower has at least ten military bases in the region, responsible for defending the vast riches exposed by global warming: up to 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves, 15% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves, mineral deposits of diamonds, metals, and uranium, as well as fishing banks.

It is estimated that by 2050, regular ships would be able to transit the NSR between Europe and Northeast Asia, in a journey 40% shorter compared with the Suez Canal route, facilitating Russian oil and gas exports to China, Japan, and South Korea.

The Danish bulk carrier Nordic Orion, with an ice-strengthened hull, set a milestone in 2012, being the first large sea freighter to transit the Northwest Passage carrying coking coal from Vancouver to Pori, Finland.

The Northwest Passage shortened the distance by 1,609 km compared to the traditional route via the Panama Canal. Fuel savings were approximately USD $80,000 and Nordic Orion was able to load 15,000 tons more cargo than sailing through the Panama Canal, due to its depth limits.

This is one of the reasons why 11 non-coastal states have joined the Arctic Council. According to the Tongji University of Shanghai, “the opening of the northern routes is vital” for nearly USD $500,000 million in Chinese annual exports during the next years.

Founded in 1996, the Arctic Council has eight coastal states members: Canada, Denmark (representing Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S., in addition to 14 non-coastal states with observer status: China, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

At the 11th Arctic Council Ministerial meeting last month in Finland, the organization reaffirmed its commitment to maintain the Arctic “as a region of peace, stability, and constructive cooperation” with the sole exception of the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who criticized China’s growing participation and refused to sign on to a statement prioritizing climate change issues, marking the first time the Council had failed to release a joint declaration at the close of its meetings.

As of 2006, Canada has invested more than USD $3,000 million building a specialized fleet.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed concerns about the Atlantic Alliance’s plans to increase its presence in the Arctic, a position undoubtedly reinforced by Pompeo comments, calling Canada’s claim over the Northwest Passage “illegitimate.”

The new strategic race has found Washington ill-prepared. Former Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp, named as the first U.S. special representative for the Arctic Region in 2014, said that his country needs billions of dollars of new equipment including ice-breaking ships, better satellite service, and fiber-optic networks.

This month, Seattle was selected as the homeport for the new fleet of Polar Security Cutters,” after a Mississippi shipbuilder was awarded a contract to build three heavy icebreakers.

Construction of the first vessel is slated to begin in 2021, ending four decades of inactivity in this matter.

Nevertheless, Russia has more than 40 icebreakers, including nine heavy nuclear-powered ships in service or under construction, considered by experts the equivalent of U.S. nuclear aircraft carriers.

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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