When the Arctic Melts: Interests In the Freezing North

While many in the United States dread climate change, other countries are moving to capitalize on the changing environment. According to a Pew Global Survey released in 2017, 51% of Americans fear the effects of climate change, compared to only 35% of Russians. In fact, out of the 38 countries polled, Russians were least concerned with climate change.

Although climate change remains a partisan issue in the United States, NASA has released evidence to support statements that the Arctic sea ice is declining at an alarming rate of 12.8% per year, according to NASA. Further, NASA describes that: “Seventeen of the 18 warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2001, with the exception of 1998.” This means that shipping routes that were inaccessible are increasingly more viable. In particular, the opening of the Northern Sea Route has become something of a waiting game for Russian shipping companies. In the past, ships coming from the Arctic Sea have been forced to travel through the Suez Canal to enter Asia; in other words, the ships must travel through three continents in order to arrive in one of the largest global markets. However, with the melting ice, ships have been able to penetrate further and attempt to travel through the Bering Strait to reach Asia. It is estimated that this alternative shipping route will cut up to 50% of travel time.

Nevertheless, the geopolitical implications of the Arctic region stand to be more important than new opportunities for efficient shipping routes. The US Geological Survey estimates that there are significant amounts of undiscovered oil and gas reserves in the Arctic region. On top of the resources and shipping routes that countries will undoubtedly be prone to claim, the Arctic Sea itself is an interesting new border for the nations in the Arctic Circle.  

However, claims to the Arctic Sea extend beyond what is visible — literally. Other than the two-hundred nautical miles of sea granted to the country which borders it, bodies of open water are also determined by continental shelves, which are the bodies of land that extend beneath the water. Depending on where these shelves drop off, a country is allowed to claim the sea above it. The geopolitical aspects of the region are already increasingly complicated as Denmark and Russia will likely have overlapping claims in the North.

As Russia develops military bases in the North, it is likely that other countries will follow suit. Russia has been most active in protecting its interest in the Arctic Sea. Indeed, according to Russian professionals, Russia has the most to gain from the Arctic region. Nobel prize winning climatologist Oleg Anisimov, in an interview with VICE, warns: “The problem of climate change is actually the problem of adaptation to climate change… There are regions in the world where there are no potential benefits but Russia is not such a region.”