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.


Russian officials say it was not a claim but rather part of a research voyage to chart the continental shelf. But Moscow's ambitions for the Arctic are raising anxieties. Last month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev convened his Security Council to discuss the "strategically important" Arctic. He called for a law to set Russia's southern Arctic zone and described the pursuit of Russian interests there as a "duty to our descendants." With more than 20 icebreakers, seven powered by atomic reactors, Russia has unparalleled capabilities in the Arctic. "Geographically, they're far and away the dominant force up there," says Arctic expert Borgerson, a former Coast Guard officer. Russia conducted two scientific expeditions in the Arctic this past summer and has stepped up naval activity there. Its strategic bombers and reconnaissance planes have also flown over Arctic waters near Alaska, Canada, and Norway.

In Canada, meanwhile, the government has also struck a tough tone, appealing to nationalist sensitivities. That tack has political benefit, especially as the ruling conservatives stand for re-election this month. A strand of the Canadian identity has always revered the great white north: "The true North, strong and free! From far and wide, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee," goes the country's national anthem.

After the Russian flag planting, Ottawa seemed primed to take up the challenge. " 'Use it or lose it' is the first principle of sovereignty in the Arctic," says Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He has portrayed the region as a key to future Canadian prosperity. His government has decided to double, to 200 nautical miles from the coast, its jurisdiction over shipping and plans to spend $100 million on geomapping over the next five years. On the military side, it is running annual Arctic "sovereignty exercises" and will establish a cold-weather training center at Resolute Bay and a deep-water port. Canada's Navy will also acquire eight more ice-strengthened patrol ships.

The United States, for its part, has not acted with the same urgency. "We are behind when it comes to what is happening with our other Arctic neighbors," says Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The lagging begins with the Law of the Sea convention. Despite Bush administration support, Senate ratification of the 1982 treaty remains blocked by conservative Republicans fearful that the treaty will give away American sovereignty. The other four Arctic coastal states have adopted the convention and are eligible to file their claims for economic control. The Pentagon has also appeared slow to focus on the region. The U.S. Coast Guard maintains just two working icebreakers, with another docked until repairs are authorized. The question of expanding the icebreaker force has been left unanswered, while a broader, interagency review of Arctic policy has continued for nearly two years. A new national security policy directive is nearing completion.

Still, the United States did begin continental-shelf mapping around Alaska last year and this, turning up evidence that the U.S. continental shelf claim may extend north of Alaska by at least 600 nautical miles. The CIA is said to be analyzing Russian Arctic activities closely, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has delivered to the Coast Guard a sophisticated model of the Lomonosov Ridge and the High Arctic. The Coast Guard set up a temporary base this past summer at Point Barrow, Alaska, and tested operating in the Arctic. The service's commandant, Adm. Thad Allen, emphasizes the need to prepare for handling oil-spill cleanups and tourist-ship rescues and for policing ship traffic in remote seas. But the resources are lacking. "There's water up there where there didn't use to be, and I'm responsible for it," he says.

U.S. and other diplomats insist that the Arctic will not become a new Wild North, where resource rivalries, backed by armed forces, play out. "No nation has said they will take matters into their own hands," assures Norwegian diplomat Karsten Klepsvik. The Arctic, too, has long had a tradition of cross-national cooperation on science. A Russian icebreaker, for instance, cleared a path for a Danish mapping voyage. Canadian and U.S. ships and researchers teamed up last month to explore the very sea bottom that might be disputed.