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Society & Culture

Polar Positioning

Jun 15, 2015

While certain politicians in the USA are still arguing whether global warming is real, the Northwest Passage in the Arctic will soon be ice-free and Ross Ice Shelf in the Antarctic is getting ready to fall into the ocean. All of this newly opened water is giving the Chinese, Americans, Russians, Norwegians, and anyone else with a boat new waypoints to point their compass in a region potentially rich in petroleum and fish. Because there are no borders, per se, in this borderless region, this raises the inevitability of bruised feelings and blunted ambitious as different countries jockey for position.

To look at what’s at stake there and who is doing what and where, let’s first look at the situation at the South Pole and then turn our attention north.

Six countries have staked out claims to terrain in Antarctica. But they might as well be etched in blowing snow as the 1959 Antarctic Treaty makes the somewhat contradictory declaration “(the treaty) does not recognize, dispute, nor establish territorial sovereignty claims.”

China was not a signatory to the original treaty. But they have signed on now as they are newly arrived only the scene and want a say in making decisions over administering the region. For example, drilling for oil is banned in Antarctica until 2038 and only then if three quarters of the signatories agree.

The frozen landscape of Antarctica was not always frozen nor cast into darkness for six months of the year. Before the continent broke off from Africa it was teeming with animal and plant life. All of that carbon has presumably turned into hydrocarbon, which means there is high probability of petroleum present.

As to whether or not there is actually oil, the Australian Government’s Antarctic Division is also ambiguous. They say that the preponderance of 4 billion year old rocks (almost as old as the planet) are too old to hold any oil and point out that two exploratory wells dug in the name of science came up dry.

Logistics presents another major problem. Diesel engines would seize up and metal snap in the extreme cold. Shifting glaciers would shove drilling rigs right off their moorings. Despite those obvious problems, Americans and Russians operating in the extreme cold elsewhere have solved some operational issues.

Another big allure is fish. Most of the world’s oceans are overfished, but not the Antarctic, since fishing is banned there. Antarctica is home to krill, which are a small shrimp whose name means “whale food” in Norwegian. There are as numerous today as cod once were. Krill forms schools of up to 2 million tons and 450 square kilometers. Industrial fisheries would like to drop their purse seines into that.

Lots of countries have their eyes on Antarctica the claims of others notwithstanding. Since the 1940s and before, Argentina and Chile have claimed part of Antarctica as their sovereign territory. Looking at the map, this makes sense because their countries are only 1,000 KM from the peninsula that juts up toward their shore. In Chile, the evening weather forecast includes Chilean Antarctica. Argentina boasts the first citizen born there.

The Americans have built six research stations in Antarctica since the 1950s. Now the Chinese have arrived. They have built four ice stations, including one that looks, perhaps intentionally, like a pagoda. Now they are constructing a fifth. The frozen landscape is drawing Chinese tourists too. Plus China, looking to carve out, literally, a greater notch in the ice, is building a new $600 million dollar icebreaker.

What’s the situation at the other pole?

Five countries have run up the flag over parts of the Arctic: Canada, Norway, Russia, Greenland, and the USA. This is by virtue of the 200 mile exclusion zone which says such areas would, under international law, be part considered of their territory. But not everyone agrees with that nor is this much of an issue, yet. Other countries are building stations in the Arctic, including China. No one has actually stake out a claim to solid ground except Denmark, whose territory includes Greenland. But Russia does not agree with that. When Denmark put up a flag on top the ice at 90° N latitude, a Russian submarine glided underneath and planted a flag on the seafloor.

The 200 mile exclusion zone places all of the Northwest Passage within Canadian territory. The Northwest Passage is a series of deep channels and a somewhat circuitous route that once completely melted would let ships pass through these waters year round and without following in the wake of an ice breaker. Already ships ply these waters thus making the trip from, say, Europe to Asia 6,000 KM shorter than going through the Panama Canal. Estimates as to when the ice might melt range from the year 2030 to 2050.

Different media have reported that the North Pole could hold an eighth of the world’s untapped oil reserves and a quarter of its natural gas. There also could be lots of mineral wealth like iron ore and coal.

These journalists are making their observations in part based on the entirely logical conclusion of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Information Administration who say the best way to estimate what’s there is to look at what is currently being drilled. Oil is already drilled all around the Arctic region from countries whose terrain runs above the Arctic Circle. Most of these nations shut down their operations in the dark of the Arctic winter.

When the Northwest Passage melts, all of that open water would make it easier for supply ships and tankers to supply and help build industrial facilities on solid Arctic ground.

Rising temperatures and melting ice are going to raise geopolitical issues. When the oceans at either end of the world thaw, mining, fishing, and energy companies are going to press their governments to seek some legal basis and change in the rules let them do business there.

The status quo at either pole is driven by tradition, convention, and treaties to which not all countries have signed on. Even Australia says its Antarctic claim, “is not supported by most of the other Antarctic Treaty countries.”

The Guardian is clear when it says that building scientific stations and the new business of ferrying tourists to Antarctica are, “A method of assertion on a continent where sovereignty is disputed.”

Guo Peiqing, a professor of law and politics at the Ocean University of China, agreed as much when told the Guardian, “China’s exploration of the continent is like playing chess. It’s important to have a position in the global game. We don’t know when play will happen, but it’s necessary to have a foothold.”

There will come a point when working in the arctic zones becomes feasible. Someone needs to think of a way to parcel out the territory as we cannot simply make such vast areas off limits to commerce for every. In the short run, if the ice is melting and we cannot stop that then why not tow some of the ice that breaks off to California and other places where freshwater is running out. If melting ice is going to raise the ocean level then it might as well raise it in the places where water is needed.

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