Sunday, 25 January 2009

Gold in the Cold-A story of Black and White


In the coming decades there will be a snow rush, a gold rush for oil, gas and mineral deposits under the Arctic. The rock under the Arctic Ocean has the potential to contain as much as a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas resources. In the 19th century U.S. gold and oil rush brave (and obsessed) individuals poured blood, sweat and tears into the hills and scrubland of America in a romanticized quest for solid and liquid wealth.

The story of prospecting in the Arctic will be imbued with a suitably sympathetic background. The protagonists won't be individuals. Five nations lay claim to the riches under these icy wastes. Like icebergs steadily grinding together the contest will be defined along the borders of states. Like the frozen depths under the pack ice, the competition will be conducted with the cold ruthlessness of national interest.

Russia, the U.S.A, Canada, Denmark and Norway are the five contenders for the Arctic’s riches.

In 2007 a Russian submersible planted their White, Blue and Red flag on the ocean floor under the North Pole. In 2001 Russia submitted a claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which proposed that the Lomonosov ridge, which runs close to the North Pole, was an extension of the Siberian continental shelf. A continental shelf is the shallower seabed that runs out from a landmass before it drops off into the deep ocean beyond. Under the UN Law of the Sea Convention (ratified by four of the Arctic nations but not the USA in 1982) a state has the right to exploit resources up to 200 nautical miles from the edge of its continental shelf. Clearly the importance of these claims now becomes apparent. If the Commission agrees that the Lomonosov ridge is part of the Russian continental shelf, Russia would have mineral extraction rights for 200 nautical miles around it, a huge area that includes the North Pole itself. This claim is disputed by the USA, which claims the ridge is a free standing promontory jutting out from the deep sea bed. The Commission has, as of early 2009, not made any decision. Denmark also claims the Lomonosov ridge is a submerged extension of Greenland. Greenland is widely recognized as Danish territory.

As well as this central issue there are other disputes that have the potential to get ugly. The Northwest Passage, a sea route packed with near impenetrable ice since records began, is thawing. In 2007 the ice was limited enough for it to be declared navigable. Canada has stated in no uncertain terms that the Northwest Passage is Canadian territorial waters. In 2007 Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper summed up Canada’s outlook on the Arctic,

“Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this Government intends to use it. Because Canada’s Arctic is central to our national identity as a northern nation. It is part of our history. And it represents the tremendous potential of our future."

It is backing this up with action, expanding remote harbours in northern Canada and building artic patrol ships to cruise the passage and enforce its claims. The U.S.A disagrees. It and others say the Northwest Passage is international waters. It too is proposing to build arctic patrol vessels. Actions speak louder than words.

As Arctic rigs start drilling and sending oil ashore, it will have to be moved. The tankers will arrive and the Northwest Passage’s importance will become central. The port of Churchill in northern Canada is gearing up to try and catch what it hopes will be a new wave of inter-ocean shipping.

The Arctic Ocean is one of least travelled places on earth. Its name conjures spectres of unbearable loneliness and unremitting harshness. A place not made for Homo sapiens, a place that doesn't welcome us. Those who exist there need willpower as irresistible as a glacier, the muscles of a Polar bear, and the resourcefulness of an arctic fox.

The nations of the north understand this. It’s not the politics of the equator here, passionate and overcrowded. This untamed wilderness isn't a place to thrive, but survive. The wild north was one of the last places to be colonized by humans. Our battle up there is still as much with the elements as with each other.

But where men dare not go on their own, they take machines. Those driving the exploration and confrontation brewing around the Arctic are engineers, military and civilian. Its characters are already ploughing slowly on to the stage. Icebreakers, warships grey and white, hulking rigs and diamond tipped drills snaking their way into the polar seabed.

Of the Arctic nations the most pro-active and best equipped is currently Russia. With the world’s only fleet of nuclear powered ice breakers, and its northern naval fleet operating out of the world’s largest Arctic port, Murmansk, Russia plans to breathe life into frigid old shipping lanes. Murmansk is especially important. As Kier Giles says in an article on Russia and the Arctic-

“Murmansk – unlike the ports on the Baltic or those along the Black Sea – gives Russia direct access to three oceans. From Murmansk, there is no need to pass through straits that make Russian ships vulnerable. For the oil and gas industry, as well as for the Russian state, these geographical factors are seen as essential.”

For as well as Canada’s Northwest Passage, Russia has long dreamed of opening a ‘Northern Sea Route’ along Russia’s arctic coast, so connecting European shipping lanes with Asian ones. It could prove more of a complement to the Northwest Passage than a rival. Both would combine to take shipping away from the southern hemisphere, Mediterranean and Suez Canal, and send it north.

Russia also has some mysterious ports on the most remote reaches of its Arctic coastline. Dudinka is a Siberian river port accessible to sea going ships. Dikson on the Russian Arctic coast is one of the most isolated settlements on earth and is Russia’s most northern port, its few hundred residents call Dikson ‘the capital of the Arctic’. It is not just the winter darkness that shrouds these lonely frontier towns. Both of these are designated ‘closed’ settlements. Travel is restricted or denied to foreigners and even Russians need a travel permit to go there. Tiksi is a northern port with massively disproportionate runway space at its two military airfields for its size. Pevek is another Arctic port in eastern Siberia. Most of these settlements were kept alive by the industrial and military ambitions of communist Russia. From the cold war to a war in the cold, these outposts may find themselves on the front line in a race for the Arctic.

At the heart of this chilly heat is a victory of realpolitik and resource politics over environmental concerns. It was global warming, probably caused to a great extent by industrial age carbon emissions that caused this melting of Arctic ice. However in a strategic sense, resources are power. The quest for power has always been the underlying cause of war. Polar bears will tear each other to pieces over a seal carcass when seal carcasses are scarce. The metaphor carries.

Norway has arctic bases at Haakonsvern and Olavsvern on their arctic coast and in 2004 the Norwegian parliament received heavy criticism from its armed forces for pursuing a ‘High North’ strategy while simultaneously proposing the closure of the Olavsvern base. Norway has an ongoing issue involving territorial waters with Russia, and rightly sees Russia as its most problematic opponent in any Arctic exploitation.

Canada is at odds with Denmark over a tiny island, Hans Island, in between the Northern tip of Canada and Greenland. This could affect shipping through the Northwest Passage. Denmark has a special dog sled military patrol which ranges Greenland asserting Danish authority, while Danish F-16 jets have been flown straight up to Greenland from their home bases. Meanwhile Canada is not only re-equipping an old mining station at remote Nanisivik as a naval base, near to Greenland. It also has its own force of ‘rangers’ combining Inuit survival and hunting skills with global positioning and skidoo technology. Cold weather training for the Canadian army will take place at a base on Resolute Bay, similarly far north. Both nations are arming and upgrading forces for the purpose of asserting Arctic sovereignty.

The Arctic seas are currently little known and little traveled. The Barents Sea north of Russia and Norway is perhaps the best known, if as the freezing graveyard of many sailors in ill fated World War Two convoy ships. The Beaufort Sea off Alaska and Canada is host to oil rigs at the moment drilling what is still the world’s most northerly oil field. A lonely line of Russian arctic seas still betray little more than their names, the White Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea and East Siberian Sea. The Chukchi Sea stretches across the north of the bearing sea, and joins Russian waters to American and the Beaufort Sea. The Lincoln Sea starts where both Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Denmark’s Greenland end. The Greenland Sea, Wandel Sea, Labrador Sea and Baffin Bay all surround Greenland. And finally, out beyond the grey coasts of the Arctic nations, under the mass of Polar ice, lays the Arctic Ocean itself. For centuries explorers believed in a mythical ‘Open Polar Sea’ which would allow one to sail to the North pole or from Europe to the Pacific. Well the explorers are back. They have the might of state behind them, and this time they’ve found the Polar Sea. It’s under the ice and full of treasures. But no one’s kidding themselves that it’s open.

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