A Polar-Centric Approach to Understanding the Arctic Climate Crisis vis-à-vis Global Politics and Commerce

Figure 1: The Arctic Ocean, with borders as delineated by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) [For capturing the poles a little unconventional projection like the Azimuthal Projection is required (More on Projections) which offers a birds-eye perspective of the region]
  Image Source

Much of the prevalent discourse on environment, resource economy, climate change etc. has been focused on the polar regions to a great extent. Yet most of these discursive exercises focus more on these phenomena than the region itself. The region with its peculiar geographical features and characteristics affects the global political, economic, commercial and environmental scenarios more than these scenarios impacting the region. This article tries to employ a polar-centric geographical approach in building an understanding of the various phenomena of politics, environment, commerce etc. concerning the region while addressing the ramifications of climate crisis in the region.

Beginning with an Understanding of the Polar Region

Before getting into the politics of this region it makes sense to understand its geography which in turn will outline its economics- the domain in which the political players make their bidding. A diverse region with extreme climatic conditions is usually not an economically viable option.

Unlike the Antarctic, the Arctic is just ice to walk on. It shrinks and expands depending on the time of the year; usually to its half in the summers. This place observes only one sunrise and one sunset in a year and the lowest average temperature is -68°C.

The most common refrain to the question “Where is the Arctic Ocean” is that it is at the North Pole. But pinning down the “where” of a location implies identifying its geographic coordinates and if we can locate it thus we can also lay claim over it.

Figure 2: Arctic region shown at a 10 ° isotherm (in red)
Image Source

The Arctic Circle is not exactly a geometric circle, but instead a loop of 10 ° C isotherm (a line drawn on a map connecting places having equal temperature at any given time) which is the highest annual reach of temperature in the region (Figure 2), as the solar radiation is reduced beyond 66 ° 33’N latitude but its geographic boundary has varying definitions.

Law of the Sea

The Arctic is an ocean therefore its ownership is defined by the United Nations Convention on Law of The Sea (UNCLOS) making it fall under the International Waters or more commonly known as The High Seas. Though the law on ‘International Waters’ is not a well-defined one, the term generally refers to the sea beyond the Territorial Sea which extends up to 22 km or 12 nautical miles (nm) from the coastal baseline of a country and is regarded as the sovereign territory of a country. What this implies is that the Arctic ocean is a free Ocean in general terms. Hence it should not be claimed as a territory by any country.

Another important term to understand is the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). EEZ extends up to 370 km or 200 nm from the coastal baseline of a country and is adjacent to the territorial waters. EEZ was adopted at the Third United Nations Conference on the ‘Law of the Sea’ (1982) and gives “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living” (Article 56, UNCLOS – Part V).

Figure 3: The region of EEZ is shown in light blue and those  outside it are in dark blue. Image Source
Figure 4: Maritime Zones (lateral view). Image Source
Figure 5: Maritime zones (aerial view) Image Source

It is also important to understand the concept of Continental Shelf to understand the international laws which govern the seas. This unlike the other two concepts mentioned above is a geographical concept and refers to the geologic structure of the continental masses beneath the sea level. It is the most important concept to be discussed here as it could easily become the basis of a conflict. The region lying in a continental shelf is shallower and is ideal for resource extraction. Mumbai High offshore oil field located at 160 km from the west coast of Mumbai in the Arabian sea is one such example.

“The continental shelf of a coastal State comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance.’ – Article 76, UNCLOS – Part VI

The Cause of Conflict in the Arctic Region

The Territorial Waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone are defined 12 nm and 200nm zones from the baseline but the continental shelf is part of the continental landmass and may extend beyond 200 nm. Therefore, a state can claim more than 200 nm as a part of its continental shelf but such a claim has to be verified first. To do so a scientifically-backed claim should be submitted to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) defined in Article 76, UNCLOS.

In case of the Arctic region it remains a difficult task even for the most developed countries as the Arctic is vast and frozen for most of the year. Moreover, the scientific ships which help carry out the studies for the claims are not as sturdy as the combat ships. So the collection of such data could take years of compiling.

Currently the ocean resources in the region are claimed by Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark (via Greenland), and US (via Alaska). These countries along with Finland, Iceland and Sweden constitute the Arctic Council (AC).

Formed by the Ottawa Declaration of 1996 the AC is an intergovernmental forum for promoting ‘cooperation, coordination and interaction’ among eight Arctic States (Canada, United Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, The Russian Federation, Sweden & The United States of America) and six Permanent Participants (representing Indigenous People). It has six Working Groups and 38 Observers.

The AC nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) became concerned when in 2007 a Russian mini-submarine placed the national titanium flag at north pole almost 2.5 miles at the bottom of the sea. The Arctic is said to hold 30% of worlds untapped oil reserves. Though its exploitability is not practical, this scenario may change with the climate change. The US Geological Survey says the percentage could even go higher as we explore the region further.

At present three countries- Russia, Denmark and (more recently) Canada have conflicting claims up till the north pole (Figure 6). The US is currently lagging as it is the only nation among the AC members which has not ratified the UNCLOS as it finds the treaty to be unfavourable to its economic and security interests. This also means that the US could claim the north pole too as it isn’t bound to prove its continental shelf region as per UNCLOS. The US has been consistent in its stand against the Law of the Sea throughout the Bush and Obama administration, while the Trump administration has been more outspoken since 2018. Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of the State also addressed the country’s concerns over the region at the AC meeting in 2019.

Figure 6: Maritime jurisdiction and arctic boundaries with conflicting claims.
Image Source: IBRU- Centre for Borders Research

What has been more significant is the entry of China in this scheme of things. In 2016 a Chinese mining company tried to buy an abandoned naval base in Greenland and a Chinese icebreaker ship (a ship which necessarily accompanies every commercial or non-commercial ship to break the surface ice and make way for the ship it accompanies) sailed through the Northwest Passage (See Figure 7). China even claims a seat in the polar decision-making body (the Arctic Council) calling itself a ‘Near-Arctic Country’ and is also an observer member of the same.

Figure 7: Arctic Sea Routes. Image Source

The Emerging Routes

Something more concerning than the resource exploration in such a sensitive region is the increased traffic. China has been at the centre of this issue for many reasons. Besides its growing influence over the South China Sea and the One Road initiative, the Arctic Route is equally crucial for China. In 2017 Chinese icebreakers explored the Northwest Sea Route (Figure 7) and in 2018  published a white paper describing it as an ‘Ice Silk Road’. China’s strong ties with Russia further escalate the concern. Russia has the largest fleet of icebreakers (essential for navigating through the Arctic)- 40 currently active and over 10 in the making and is the only country to construct and own nuclear-powered icebreakers while China is fast catching up. The US on the other hand just has one.

Figure 8: Suez Canal Route (in red) and Northern Sea Route (in blue)
Image Source  

The Polar or the Northern Sea route is shorter than the traditional Suez Canal route (see Figure 8) and the Cape of Good Hope route (which is even longer than the Suez Canal Route). Around 17000 ships pass through the Suez Canal every year. Presently the cost of Trans Polar Route is high because of the usage of icebreakers and high insurance costs but with the climate change phenomenon Arctic is witnessing more visitors. 2012 recorded the lowest recorded Arctic Caps since the modern record keeping began in the 1970s thus opening new routes. While by the year 2010 only four vessels had sailed through them, the numbers sharply increased to 34 in 2011, 46 in 2012 and 71 in 2013.

In 2018, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) staged a military exercise with 40,000 troops in Norway, one of the biggest in recent years. Similarly the U.S. which is far behind is trying its best to cope with Russia to increase its presence in the region.The race is to get at the top of the world. Countries are waiting for the Arctic to melt and become an ocean. Apparently most countries are preparing not to restore the Arctic but for it to become ice-free; eyeing a Bering Strait to replace the Suez Canal. If the interests of world powers collide, the resulting war could only be cold in the Arctic.

Arctic as the Pivot of the Globe and Possibly the Global Politics

The geographic north pole remains a pivot and an atypical region not only geographically but also economically and politically, as illustrated in this piece. While the Geographic North- Pole and Magnetic North-Pole are different from each other with different locations, rhetorically speaking the very geography of North-pole has given it its magnetic attraction for the global powers.

North pole is nature’s Constantinople, the last fort to be won. However it is still not captured in our maps correctly or in other words our maps are not pole-centric perhaps because the environment of the poles isn’t people-centric. Hence it is not surprising that the politics, commerce and economics of the region is not adequately captured in our current discourse even though the region is so lucrative from all of the above vantage points. To remedy this it requires a pole-centric approach in our discourse much like in our cartography.

Bob Stanley Gardner is the Assistant Professor of Geography at St. John’s College, Agra and runs a website Mapping Around with an objective of initiating a dialogue through maps.

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