The old North Pole no longer exists: the battle for the Arctic


Climate change is two to three times faster in the Arctic than elsewhere. That is a disaster for nature. And eager countries suddenly also see commercial opportunities looming, for fishing and the oil industry. How are you Looking for the Future of the Arctic?

1 Climate change: record on record

You could say, says climate scientist Roderik van de Wal (Utrecht University), that the old North Pole no longer exists. “The Arctic has transitioned to a new, warmer climate.” The frozen world of the Arctic is increasingly giving way to the open ocean. In ten years’ time, the pole will be largely ice-free in summer. With all its consequences, for the area itself and far beyond, for the global climate.

Climate change is two to three times faster in the Arctic than elsewhere in the world and is breaking record after record. This summer, the mercury reached 21.7 degrees in Spitsbergen, 1,300 km from the geographic North Pole; in Siberia it even reached 38 degrees. 2020 was the second warmest year on record in the Arctic. Average temperatures are now 3 to 5 degrees higher than in the 1970s.

The consequences will not be forthcoming, for example for the annual growth and reduction of sea ice in Arctic waters. That sea ice had its second smallest ever size on 15 September (after the record year 2012), well below the long-term average. While there were 7.5 million square kilometers of sea ice in the summer of 1980, that amount had halved by 2020. Sea ice is also getting thinner and more fragile, and perennial ice is disappearing.

The decrease in sea ice triggers a whole cascade of processes, says Van de Wal. Because dark seawater absorbs sunlight better than ice, the Arctic waters heat up faster; this summer they were up to 3 degrees warmer than average. The sea is also warming the land, resulting in less and less snow cover in Eurasia, record forest fires in Siberia and an increasingly dense freezing sea in the autumn.

The Greenland ice sheet lost a record amount of 586 billion tons of ice last year, 15 percent more than the previous record of 2012. If the ice sheet melted completely, the sea level would rise by six meters (over many centuries). However, according to scientists, the ice sheet has already passed the ‘point of no return’: there is no longer enough snow to be able to compensate for the loss of ice via calving glaciers.


2 Nature: humans and animals endangered

The warming is so rapid that many Arctic animal species cannot keep up, says Gert Polet of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). For example, wild reindeer in Taimyr, Northern Russia, started their migration extremely early this year. Many newborn calves were still too weak and died. While many animal species are migrating to cooler latitudes due to global warming, Arctic species have nowhere to go.

The polar bear will certainly fall victim to global warming, according to Polet, because it depends on the sea ice for seal hunting. Now that this disappears, the bears have to survive on land for longer and switch to other food (many bears come to huddle at human settlements), or fast. This is at the expense of their fat reserves and therefore their chances of survival. Research recently indicated that all polar bear populations will decline sharply this century, except for those in the so-called ‘Last Ice Area’ north of Canada.

Arctic animal species also suffer from increasing human activities in the Arctic. For example, Canada wants to increase production of the Mary River mine on Baffin Island. About 12 million tons of iron ore per year must be transported via a new railway line and a shipping route to be kept free of ice between Canada and Greenland. According to biologists, the propeller noise from the ships will be fatal to the overwintering narwhal populations and the highly endangered bowhead whale, which has recently returned to the area.

Humans themselves are also affected by global warming. Local indigenous communities, such as the Inuit and First Nations, see global warming putting their vulnerable food supplies at risk. The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in northwestern Yukon declared a state of emergency last year. They live off caribou hunting, but that tradition is suffering from the warming of the tundra and changing caribou migration patterns.

3 Exploitation: expansion in the Barents Sea

Arctic warming offers opportunities to many industries. The warming of the sea water is bringing many commercially interesting southern fish species, such as cod, to the area. And Arctic waters are becoming increasingly accessible to shipping and the oil and gas industry.

Norway, for instance, is aiming to expand its oil and gas exploration in the Barents Sea. The Norwegian government issued 136 new concessions in mid-November. To do this, it shifted the official boundary of the ‘marginal ice zone’, the productive transition zone between sea ice and open ocean that is the basis for the entire Arctic ecosystem, and which is closed to exploration because of its vulnerability to pollution and disturbance from seismic tests. The new border is conveniently located north of all oil and gas concessions.

The question is whether it comes from drilling. The oil sector is cutting back considerably due to the corona crisis and the plunged oil price. But the highest Norwegian judge rejected the opponents’ objections in mid-December. “In the midst of the climate crisis, Norway is enabling even more oil exploration in the fragile Arctic,” Greenpeace’s Frode Pleym said earlier. “It is a reckless affront for future generations.”

On the other side of the world, the outgoing US Trump administration wants to drill for oil and gas in Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, threatening the reserve’s itinerant herds of caribou and the polar bears giving birth there. Trump is trying to push ahead with the auctioning of the permits before Joe Biden takes office on January 20 (Biden is against oil drilling in the Arctic). Indigenous groups are now trying to prevent the auction through federal courts.

Polet remains optimistic. ‘We have lost the battle, the area is open to concessions, but if no one bids it becomes one no-go. ‘ Many oil companies seem hesitant: there is no infrastructure in the area, the market is down and many large investors have just committed to protecting biodiversity.

4 Maritime: dirty shipping

The warming and decline of sea ice (with possibly an ice-free ocean in summer within a few years) are making the Arctic Ocean increasingly accessible to shipping. Major growth is expected, particularly for freight transport. An ice-free northern passage can cut the sailing time between China and Europe, now 40 days, by a quarter. In recent years, the number of trips around the North has increased significantly.

The growth of shipping places a burden on the fragile Arctic environment. Ships when burning heavy fuel oil emit large amounts of sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide, as well as soot particles, which deposit on the sea ice, reduce the reflection of sunlight and accelerate warming. In addition, there is the risk of oil spills. For this reason, shipping in the waters around Antarctica has long been strictly restricted.

After endless training, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the shipping arm of the UN, decided at the end of November to impose a ban on heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters. But the ban will not take effect until July 2024, and there are so many exceptions that 75 percent of ships can continue to burn fuel oil until mid-2029. ‘The ban is a sham,’ says Eelco Leemans of the Clean Arctic Alliance.

The problem is, says WWF’s Polet, that many remote Arctic village communities, such as those of the Inuit in Alaska, Canada and Greenland, still rely entirely on oil-fired generators for electricity and heating. ‘You can actually only enforce a total ban on the combustion of fuel oil if an alternative is available for these people.’

5 Geopolitics: land grab is imminent

In 2007, a Russian submarine placed a titanium flag at the bottom of the Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea mountain range that bisects the Arctic ocean basin. It was a symbolic claim with which Vladimir Putin’s Russia announced that it regarded the Arctic Ocean and the new shipping route as Russian domain. It kicked off growing geopolitical rivalries in the Arctic.

The Russian expansion (Russia also recently modernized its northern submarine fleet and strengthened old naval bases in remote Francois Josephland) is not uncontested. NATO naval ships entered the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone in the Barents Sea for the first time without escort from Russian warships in September. A signal to Moscow that northern access to Europe is protected.

Geopolitical rivalry is concentrated in Greenland, an autonomous part of Denmark that is not only strategically located but also rich in minerals (oil, gas, uranium and rare earths for high-tech applications), which are increasingly accessible due to the shrinking of the Greenland ice sheet. to become. All superpowers want to sit in the front row.

For example, the US, which monitored air traffic around the Pole from Thule Air Force Base during the Cold War, set their eye back on the island. They opened a consulate in Nuuk and President Trump offered to buy Greenland, a less fortunate move. Russia and China (which proclaimed itself a ‘near Arctic nation’ in 2018) also reported. Their ships are increasingly popping up unannounced in Greenland waters. To the nervousness of motherland Denmark, which can barely control the area.

Greenland itself (with only 56,000 inhabitants) sees the hoped-for income from oil and gas extraction and mining increasing the chances of full independence. Although people realize that this can also have a price, such as the influx of large numbers of expats. “If we don’t watch out,” said former Prime Minister Nicolaj Kleist about mining, “we will soon have more Chinese here than Greenlanders.”

6 Collaboration: regulation needed

Climate change and all new economic activity in the Arctic means that multilateral cooperation is badly needed to secure sustainable use of the Arctic Ocean. Existing agreements no longer suffice, according to maritime law specialist Erik Molenaar (Netherlands Institute for the Law of the Sea, Utrecht). “They are too general, not legally binding and not aimed at the area as a whole.”

The Arctic has no equivalent to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which regulates the handling of this uninhabited continent. The only counterpart is the 100-year-old Svalbard Treaty, which stipulates that Norway has sovereignty over the archipelago on behalf of 46 member states, but that they are all allowed to be economically active (only Norway and Russia do this, the latter through a former Dutch coal mine in Barentszburg. ), although Norway has a veto on mineral extraction and environmental matters.

What the Arctic does have is the so-called Arctic Council, an international consultative body of the eight northern states and the indigenous peoples of the region. However, the Board has no management mandate, and agreements made are not legally binding or otherwise enforceable. Non-Arctic states, such as the Netherlands, and NGOs, such as international environmental organizations, have only observer status.

According to Molenaar, a Antarctic-based counterpart for the Arctic is not an appropriate solution, nor does it have any support at all among the Arctic states. In his view, a good alternative could be a kind of ‘framework treaty’, which can serve as a framework for attaching partial agreements about shipping, nature conservation or sustainable extraction of raw materials.

The Arctic, with relatively few, relatively rich and stable countries and many common problems, could be the part of the world where international cooperation is thriving. In the words of WWF’s Gert Polet: “If there is a blueprint for world peace somewhere, then here.”

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