By mid-century, the chances are high for Transpolar Passage to open across the Arctic Ocean through the North Pole, mainly due to global warming effects. And most nations have buried their collective heads in the sand for this coming reality except China. So, you may forget about requiring nuclear icebreakers. Polar Code, UNCLOS, and insurance companies may still mandate ice-resistant, polar-class ships during summer seasons within the next few decades. But it may also be possible to sail in your regular vessel across the Earth’s top.
Climate change opens Arctic new sea routes
The Earth’s Arctic is in the face of rapid climate change. The thinning and shrinking of summer sea ice in the Arctic is happening quicker than previous scientists’ projections and estimations. And global warming has been the main propeller. According to recent studies, the Arctic will be ice-free for most of the summer between 2020 and 2050.
And an Arctic free from ice has significant economic and strategic implications when it comes to global shipping. If you own a vessel, you will potentially be able to traverse the Arctic Ocean. These new Trans-Arctic shipping routes could mean short distances between Northern China and Northern Europe by approximately 4,000 nautical miles. They could also reduce the shipping times by up to 14 days.
Treaties that respect and protect the Arctic, thanks to UNCLOS rules
Countries like the USA, Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia developed independent policies that govern the entire or parts of the Arctic. And the European Union, China, and South Korea were also not been left behind. The Arctic Ocean policy priorities might differ, but each Arctic nation seems to show concerns about resource development, defense and sovereignty, environmental and wildlife protection, and shipping routes.
The primary treaties and agreements that govern all or parts of the Arctic region include;
- The 1920 Svalbard Treaty between 14 counties is in charge of the economic and political status of Svalbard.
- The 1988 Arctic Cooperation Agreement between Canada and the United States commands bilateral cooperation concerning the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately, this treaty doesn’t solve Canada and USA’s disagreements and conflicts about the passage’s legal status.
- The 2011 Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement that the Arctic Council member states concluded organizes rescue and search operations in the Arctic region.
- The Barents Sea Border Agreement specifies the demarcation line between Russia and Norway in the Barents Sea.
Conflict of interests due to natural resources and boundaries in this neutral continent
The possibility of new conflicts outburst and an intensification of the existing ones in the Arctic are starting to be worrying, most of which are boundaries and natural resources conflicts. For decades now, we have witnessed interstate disputes like the USA versus Canada’s conflict in the Beaufort Sea over the border delimitation.
Despite UNCLOS rules, other lingering international conflicts of interest in the Arctic include;
- The Russian Federation versus the USA in the Bering Sea conflict.
- The Denmark/Greenland versus Canada in the Davis Straight conflict.
- Russia versus Norway in the Barents Sea conflict.
- Norway versus Russia and other states in the status of the Svalbard question.
The Arctic Ocean’s natural resources are the animal and mineral natural resources that offer or can offer economic benefit or utility to humans. The Arctic region features significant amounts of boreal forests, minerals, fresh water, and marine life, including different fish species. Russia and USA have already discovered billions of oil and natural gas in the Arctic Ocean, which is expected to be sold to Europe, Japan, China, and many other nations.
Minerals like bauxite, nickel, copper, diamond, iron ore, and phosphate are also plentiful natural resources in the Arctic. And Russia is among the nations showing interest. Greenland holds approximately 10 percent of the globe’s freshwater reserves. Due to the low population density and mountainous areas, hydropower is also among the anticipated Arctic’s natural resources.
Arctic’s environmental and ecological risks and effects
Climate change will likely force numerous sub-Arctic fish species to extend into Arctic regions. And we are likely to see more fishing activities. But the most significant threat from increased Arctic Ocean shipping activities appears to be oil release into the Arctic’s marine life and environment. And there is also the risk of emissions that deposit soot onto the ice cap, thus darkening it and accelerating warming. The effect of this warming would mean continuing shrinkage of Arctic summer sea ice. The environmental toxins in the Arctic’s ecosystem and rise in water temperatures can significantly increase the rate of polar species extinctions.
Today, the Arctic Ocean and the surrounding Arctic regions are equal to other global parts. The UNCLOS offers a satisfactory framework for non-violent conflict resolutions. UNCLOS continues to state that coastal states possess sovereign rights to natural resources in the seabed and water within a two-hundred-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.