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Growing Conflict Over Arctic Resources
And The Threat Of A Climate Catastrophe

By Dr. Peter Custers

16 October, 2010

At first the event sounds like a simple textbook story illustrating the conflicts which the world’s rich nations have for centuries been fighting over access to fossil fuels and other natural wealth. On September 21 last, an Arctic Forum was held in the Russian capital of Moscow. Organized by the Russian Geographic Society together with Russia’s press agency RIA Novosti, the Forum brought together hundreds of scientists and politicians hailing from countries bordering the Arctic region and from countries located farther away. Russia’s government, evidently pleased with the Forum, used the occasion to boost its own claims over large parts of the North Pole which is (still) covered by an icecap. In 2007 Russia already had pushed its claims, when its scientists had boarded a mini-submarine and had planted a rust-free flag of their nation on the bottom of the North Pole. Earlier yet, in 2001, Russia had submitted its bid to ownership over the underwater ridge known as ‘Lomonosov’ to the United Nations, arguing that the given geographic formation is an extension of Russia’s continental shelf. As Russian news reports on the Arctic Forum indicate, - Russia believes its claim to 1.2 million kilometer of the Arctic circle are in line with the rules set by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Yet Russia is by no means the only country that lays claims to a part of the North Pole. In fact, each of the five nations bordering the Arctic has been making its own separate bids. Denmark for instance, which rules over the vast ice-covered land mass of Greenland, largely located within the Arctic circle, has carried out its own scientific expedition aimed at backing up its own claims. And Denmark’s Scandinavian neighbor Norway has officially demanded that its rights over the eastern part of the Arctic be extended. The rationale underlying the fever of the Arctic border states appears to be just one: to reach out to the rich reserves of oil and gas deposited at the bottom of the Arctic circle, - either before or after the icecap of the North Pole melts. Both Russia and the USA, which too borders the region, i.e. from its Western side via Alaska state, are convinced that vast quantities of fossil fuels and other raw materials lie buried under the Arctic sea. According to figures of American experts that were cited at the Moscow Forum, - the Arctic’s extractable reserves include an estimated 90 Billion barrels of crude oil, and 50 Billion cubic meters of natural gas. Such figures suffice to entice energy-hungry nations. Especially at a time when the world is reaching ‘peak oil’, the point at which any further growth in the world’s size of oil production becomes elusive in view of the physical exhaustion of extractable reserves.

This story regarding competing ‘territorial’ claims may appear ordinary. Still, the circumstances surrounding future extraction of Arctic resources are by no means average. First, the North Pole, as indicated, is no land mass, but a deep sea area. Like the Antarctic, i.e. the pole located towards the Southern extreme of the globe, the North pole has been covered by ice ever since humans started roaming the earth. But the geographical circumstances of the two polar regions are widely divergent. Whereas the Antarctic is an ice-covered landmass surrounded by sea, - the centre of the Arctic features a deep sea area capped by ice. For two reasons, the idea of oil and natural gas extraction in this polar region is an extremely hazardous proposition. For one - the experience which the world’s oil corporations have gathered with drilling in areas covered by ice is limited. More ominously: BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April brings out that all deep sea drilling is risky, and that such drilling can easily result in a human and environmental catastrophe. In the wake of the oil spill, opponents of Arctic drilling in Alaska have intensified their efforts to prevent exploratory drilling by Shell along Alaska’s Northern shore. Yet one wonders whether the prohibition on deep sea drilling need not be greatly extended, so as to cover all sections of the Arctic.

To bring out that this proposition is not farfetched, we need to place Moscow’s Arctic Forum and the ‘territorial’ conflicts over the North Pole against the background of the debate over climate change. The risks deriving from the warming-up of the earth can very well be illustrated with data on the situation in the Arctic. If the whole ice sheet covering Greenland today were to melt, - this change alone according to climate experts would result in a 7 meter rise in sea levels worldwide. But the melting of ice in Greenland is not a distant prospect, for the effects of climate change are already visible here. Some of Greenland’s glaciers for instance have accelerated the speed at which they flow towards the sea along the country’s coast. One of these glaciers, the Kangerdlunggssuag, is reported to have doubled the velocity of its flow. As to the Arctic circle as a whole: the Arctic ice sheet has lost a reported 15 percent of its surface over the last thirty years, and 40 percent of its thickness. Both indigenous hunters and animals which depend on the ice sheet for their habitat suffer in consequence. The ice bear is one instance. Considered to be the symbol of the Arctic, the ice bear is threatened with extinction in the short term.

Against this background, the Moscow Forum on the Arctic seemed a rather surrealistic event. For the Arctic circle is the very region where the drama of the world’s climate catastrophe threatens being enacted. Two of the natural phenomena which scientists describe when speaking of ‘tipping points‘, of natural changes that in the future will speed up the pace of climate change, occur in the Arctic circle and its surroundings. The Arctic´s ice sheet causes what´s called the albedo effect, i.e. the reflection of the sun´s light back into space. And the permafrost, i.e. frozen soil, which covers a vast expanse of Russian territory along the Arctic, contains huge amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane. Hence, the melting processes taking place in this part of the globe may ultimately cause a worldwide deluge, - a rise in sea water levels so rapid that hundreds of millions of people will be swept away almost overnight. Meanwhile, some states are getting prepared to enforce their claims over portions of the Arctic by military means. Russia reportedly is building special Arctic armed forces, and Canada has started construction of a military base in the region. Yet the very idea of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic circle seems an absurd proposition. Instead, there are strong reasons to demand that Russia and other Northern nations refrain from any exploration or extraction of fuel resources in the North Pole and the Arctic.