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The Arctic is melting. Here’s why cooperation and diplomacy get so complicated.

- July 30, 2018
A path remains after the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica traversed the Northwest Passage through the Franklin Strait in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago in July 2017. (AP)

Heat waves from Greece to Siberia — and fires north of the Arctic Circle — are the latest signs this summer that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. This once-inhospitable corner of the globe is becoming the next global commons as the polar ice cap melts.

This will have broad implications for the Arctic as well as non-Arctic nations, and for local and global ecosystems. But the changing environment, new sea lanes and potential new commercial opportunities also open up global security and diplomacy questions.

Here’s what’s happening. Scientists project that the Arctic Ocean will be largely open water during the summer months, a change that will occur within the next two decades. This means new polar routes and shorter maritime transit times than ever before, but also new potential areas of conflict.

The Arctic now sees shorter periods of crushingly cold weather and, in some areas, longer stretches of warmer weather. In mid-February 2018, temperatures at the world’s northernmost weather station were above freezing — some 45 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. Meanwhile, the thickness of Arctic Ocean sea ice declined by more than 65 percent over the past 30 years, according to a 2017 Arctic Council report. And open water will absorb the sun’s glare, rather than reflect it. This will probably lead to warmer temperatures and further melting.

Here’s why these changes matter

To look at this issue in depth, the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University convened a working group on the New Arctic and its geopolitical implications. ISD’s July 2018 report, “The New Arctic: Navigating the Realities, Possibilities, and Problems,” brings together analysis from experts on the Arctic, climate change, foreign policy and national security, as well as government and nongovernmental-organization policymakers.

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The group concluded that three topics will be of particular importance in the coming years. These are by no means mutually exclusive.

1. Resource extraction. The Arctic has huge energy and mineral potential. The Eurasia Group estimates that “$100 billion could be invested in Arctic resource exploration and extraction over the next decade,” as the Arctic contains perhaps one-third of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of its oil. The Arctic also has huge potential for renewable energy and rare earth minerals.

Exploration and extraction raise environmental red flags, including the need for comprehensive plans to address potential oil spills, but will also require enhanced search and rescue (SAR) capabilities. To some Arctic researchers, there are concerns about the Trump administration’s move to allow oil and gas exploration within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in particular, because of the threat to native species and the indigenous communities that depend on them.

2. Expanded sea lanes. Melting ice means new polar routes, shortened transit times and significant commercial advantages, which will prove attractive to trade-focused nations such as China. By one estimate, ships taking the polar route from Shanghai to Hamburg, instead of the traditional Indian Ocean route, could shave 2,800 nautical miles off the journey.

Russia, along with China, is keenly aware of the benefits of an increasingly navigable Arctic. What Moscow calls the Northern Sea Route (NSR) stretches across 3,000 miles and seven time zones and links the country’s vast Arctic resources. As these waters grow increasingly navigable, Russia will no doubt seek business and technical partners to develop the NSR infrastructure.

The anticipated rise in commercial shipping — and tourist cruises — raises other concerns, particularly for the United States. Many of these routes will pass through the Bering Strait, an environmentally sensitive marine area. And the region does not have the SAR or environmental remediation capabilities to cope with the anticipated uptick in maritime traffic.

3. National security and geopolitics. The new Arctic — and its potential — has spurred interest in the region from longtime and new players alike. To date, there has been significant cooperation on all sides through the consensus-based approach of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that has been leading this effort since 1996. The Arctic Council also has 13 non-Arctic nations as observers, as well as a number of intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations.

What happens now, with a more open and accessible Arctic? Following the end of the Cold War, the United States withdrew much of its Arctic forces and capabilities, while Russia neglected much of its infrastructure. And in a twist of fate, Arctic melting is exposing a former Cold War U.S. ballistic missile testing site and the nuclear waste that goes with it, representing “an entirely new pathway of political dispute resulting from climate change.”

Over the past few years, Western allies have grown concerned about Russia’s renewed interest in the region and military expansion, including new Arctic airfields, deep-water ports and a fleet of icebreakers, in addition to a new Arctic command. Russia has a 40-to-2 advantage in icebreakers over the United States.

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China, too, has a plan for the Arctic, as detailed in a January 2018 white paper linking the “Polar Silk Road” to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. There is clear Chinese interest in new and shorter shipping options, but Beijing has also invested in mining in Greenland and seeks to negotiate a free-trade agreement with Iceland, build more icebreakers and extend its fishing fleets, according to a Council on Foreign Relations study.

The Arctic is quickly developing into a complicated problem on multiple levels 

For policymakers, these developments suggest that keeping the Arctic a conflict-free zone may become more important and perhaps more difficult. A more open Arctic means the eight Arctic nations — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States — will face regional issues such as coastal erosion, loss of traditional livelihoods and the need to monitor the environmental changes.

And there will be new challenges to manage increased shipping traffic and other commercial activities safely — as well as juggle the concerns and activities of the growing numbers of non-Arctic players who are fast becoming more interested in the new Arctic.

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The melting Arctic introduces a number of global concerns. How will the warmer polar temperatures change global weather patterns, for instance? Scientific research and collaboration among Arctic nations are on the rise, but the ongoing, drastic climatic change means this research will take on an even deeper importance, as policymakers discuss environmental resilience, mitigation or adaptation measures — both in the region and elsewhere in the world.

Kelly M. McFarland is director of programs and research at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and an adjunct professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Vanessa Lide is associate editor with the Monkey Cage, based at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. She also edits diplomacy cases for the Institute’s online Case Studies Library.