Posted on May 14, 2019
The Arctic is the northernmost point of Earth, a vast frozen desert largely made up of sea-ice. The region consists of the Arctic Ocean and parts of Canada, Russia, the USA, Greenland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland. In the mid-winter months, the sun never rises and temperatures can easily reach lows of – 50º F in the higher latitudes. But the region is going through rapid change, as rising temperatures are reducing sea ice and technological advances are making the once impenetrable Arctic increasingly accessible.
The area is rich in natural resources, with the US Geological Survey estimating that the Arctic holds 70% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas – some 1,699 trillion cubic feet of gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.
The greater accessibility is expected to prompt a race to claim and exploit these assets.
Arctic navigator Captain Craig Feeney has worked 14 seasons in the region. He has seen the thawing ice sheets firsthand and how this has sparked interest amongst powerful nations, with Russia attempting to exert its dominance. “Without a doubt, we’re going to have issues of sovereignty in the North. [Russia] have laid a claim to the North Pole. Canada is refuting it, it should be international waters… Denmark is also refuting that claim, all the other regions are really. As tensions get worse, it’s quite possible that Russia might decide to say we’ll patrol vessels here.”
Russia has a large fleet of purpose-built ice breakers, eight of them nuclear-powered. President Vladimir Putin is also modernising Soviet-era bases in the Arctic and plans to increase cargo shipments across the Arctic Sea, with 60 million tonnes more by 2025.
China has also looked to develop its presence in the region. In Greenland, Chinese companies planned to buy an abandoned naval base and build airports but their plans were rejected by the country’s devolved government.
All of these moves by eastern powers are a big concern for the Ministry of Defence. Professor of International Security Caroline Kennedy-Pipe said: “No one owns the central Arctic… So we could see a gold rush, an oil rush in the Arctic. We’re expecting to see great power rivalries played out, particularly with a resurgent Russia and a very interested China.”
That changing physical and strategic picture saw the UK’s Defence Select Committee urge for more ambition in the Arctic. Caroline Kennedy-Pipe continued: “It looks like a race to me but we’re looking 30, 50, 70 years out. There’s a longer-term horizon that depends on climate change but it’s certainly a race. We’re certainly, as a member of NATO, watching the Russians very carefully.”
This year more than 800 Royal Marines and their support arms deployed to Norway as Britain strengthens its focus on the Arctic.