Global Warming Triggers an International Race for the Arctic

As the ice melts, national rivalries heat up over oil and gas deposits and shipping routes.


Oil hunt. Last year, Norway's StatoilHydro showed that marauding ice packs and perilous cold could be overcome, launching the first commercial energy operation in Arctic waters. Norwegian tankers are now transporting liquefied gas from the Snow White field, 90 miles above the Norwegian shore, to Maryland's Cove Point Terminal, from which it is piped to consumers on the East Coast. With the development of new technologies, like production gear that sits on the bottom of the sea and reinforced tankers that can move bow-first in open water or stern-first to break through ice, the energy industry is readying itself for the Arctic age. "Technology will not hold up Arctic resource development," says Geir Utskot, an Arctic executive for Schlumberger Oilfield Services.

Fortunes may be made in other pursuits as well. The Arctic ice melt will expose mining opportunities for commodities from diamonds and gold to nickel, copper, and chromium. Sea temperature shifts could prompt some fish stocks to migrate to Arctic waters newly accessible to fishing vessels. Those vessels won't be the only ones heading north. Global cargo shipping could change radically because of newly usable Arctic sea lanes. Sailing over the top of the world could cut up to half the current shipping distance between East Asian ports and Europe or the eastern United States, providing an enormous saving in fuel costs and transit time.

Arctic tourism could also flourish. Chuck Cross, president of Bend, Ore.-based Polar Cruises, joined about 100 of his customers in June on the Russian nuclear icebreaker 50 Years of Victory. It set out from Murmansk, in Russia, to the North Pole; thinning ice made the journey a fast one. At the pole, they disembarked to picnic on the ice, though after some difficulty. "We had to maneuver around for more than half an hour because we couldn't find any ice big enough for those hundred people to get off the ship safely," he says.

The nations in the new Arctic game have also been maneuvering for position. All five either have mapped or are mapping the outward extensions of their continental shelves. That painstaking and expensive science is critical to making economic claims. The key piece of international law in the Arctic is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The United States, though not yet a signatory, is acting as though it will be. Under the treaty, a panel of specialists issues recommendations on where shelves end and international seabeds begin. States are entitled to exclusive economic rights to the sea and what lies underneath for up to 200 nautical miles off their coasts. The area of economic control can be extended if the continental shelf is shown to range farther.

There is much in dispute. The United States and Canada will most likely make overlapping claims on their shelves, as will Norway and Russia. But the biggest problem may arise from a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range called the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs from Siberia to Greenland and Canada. All three may claim it as the natural extension of their homelands. In addition, the Arctic is rife with disagreements over boundaries and maritime passages. Canada and the United States cannot agree over their maritime boundary in the Beaufort Sea, nor on the status of the Northwest Passage. Canada considers the passage internal, while the United States and others view it as an international strait. Russia has not ratified a previous treaty fixing its maritime frontier with the United States near the Alaska coast. Canada and Denmark disagree over ownership of rocky Hans Island, and Norway and Russia differ over drawing a line in the Barents Sea. "All the ingredients," says Scott Borgerson, an Arctic expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, "are present to create an unstable situation."

Russian maneuvers. Amid that uncertainty, the Arctic nations are growing more assertive—especially the two with the longest Arctic frontage, Russia and Canada. The Russian flag-planting—dismissed as "a stunt" by U.S. and other officials—appealed to the nationalist mood in Russia, with the feat likened to the American moonshot of 1969. Asserted the expedition's leader, explorer and parliamentarian Artur Chilingarov, "The Arctic is ours." The Russian show drew poor reviews elsewhere, though, especially in Canada. "This isn't the 15th century," retorted then Foreign Minister Peter MacKay. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say, 'We're claiming this territory.' "