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07 September 2007

The Great Game of the North: As the Arctic melts, Capitalists pick over the Earth's corpse

A few years ago, Michael Klare made a lot of news with his book "Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict." Much of what is happening in the world today, when placed within Klare's paradigm, make much more sense than they do when one tries to frame them within more traditional rationales for various conflicts. However, when he wrote the book (2001) it was still assumed that the Arctic would remain too frozen for resource exploitation for at least another hundred years or so. Therefore he didn't bother to discuss the Arctic in the book. However, now that global warming has radically increased and estimates of an ice-free Arctic are now down to 20 or 30 years, the region has become a new arena for resource competition.

First, the current environmental situation:

Ice-free Arctic could be here in 23 years


The Arctic ice cap has collapsed at an unprecedented rate this summer and levels of sea ice in the region now stand at a record low, scientists said last night. Experts said they were "stunned" by the loss of ice, with an area almost twice as big as Britain disappearing in the last week alone. So much ice has melted this summer that the north-west passage across the top of Canada is fully navigable, and observers say the north-east passage along Russia's Arctic coast could open later this month. If the increased rate of melting continues, the summertime Arctic could be totally free of ice by 2030.

Mark Serreze, an Arctic specialist at the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre at Colorado University in Denver which released the figures, said: "It's amazing. It's simply fallen off a cliff and we're still losing ice." The Arctic has now lost about a third of its ice since satellite measurements began 30 years ago, and the rate of loss has accelerated sharply since 2002.

Dr Serreze said: "If you asked me a couple of years ago when the Arctic could lose all of its ice, then I would have said 2100, or 2070 maybe. But now I think that 2030 is a reasonable estimate. It seems that the Arctic is going to be a very different place within our lifetimes, and
certainly within our children's lifetimes."

Islands emerge as Arctic ice shrinks to record low


NY ALESUND, Norway (Reuters) - Previously unknown islands are appearing as Arctic summer sea ice shrinks to record lows, raising questions about whether global warming is outpacing U.N. projections, experts said. ...

The thaw of glaciers that stretch out to sea around Svalbard has revealed several islands that are not on any maps.

"Islands are appearing just over the fjord here" as glaciers recede, said Kim Holmen, research Director at the Norwegian Polar Institute, gesturing out across the bay. "We're already seeing adverse effects on polar bears and other species." ...

"I know of two islands that appeared in the north of Svalbard this summer. They haven't been claimed yet," said Rune Bergstrom, environmental expert with the Norwegian governor's office on Svalbard.

He said he had seen one of the islands, roughly the size of a basketball court. Islands have also appeared in recent years off Greenland and Canada.

Now that the Arctic is accessible, the powers are moving in, especially the United States, Canada, and Russia...

U.S. Draws Map Of Rich Arctic Floor Ahead of Big Melt


In the Arctic this week, researchers aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy are mapping claims to the spoils of global warming.

North of Alaska, the 23 scientists of the Healy are gathering the data legally required to extend national territories across vast reaches of the mineral-rich seafloor usually blocked by Arctic ice. Fathom by fathom, multibeam sonar sensors mounted on the Healy's hull chart a submerged plateau called the Chukchi Cap, in a region that may contain 25% of the world's reserves of oil and natural gas.

In an era of climate change, these frozen assets are up for grabs, as melting ice allows detailed mapping and, one day perhaps, drilling. ...

The $1 million Healy expedition is the third U.S. seafloor-mapping venture into the Arctic since 2003, prompted by provisions of the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The U.S. has never ratified the treaty but commissioned new seabed maps in case it ever is adopted. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee has set a hearing on the treaty next month.

Framed decades before the politics of the greenhouse effect permeated international relations, the U.N. treaty is taking on added importance in the Arctic as an arbiter for countries determined to come out ahead in a world transformed by rising temperatures. No country actually owns the North Pole. But with growing boldness this past summer, Russia, Denmark, Norway and Canada jockeyed for control of the Arctic seabed, galvanized by the prospect of open waterways there.

The U.N. treaty allows countries to extend their coastal economic zone up to 350 nautical miles offshore, depending on detailed technical evidence of undersea geology and topography. Under this provision, all four countries claim an underwater mountain called the Lomonosov Ridge that runs underneath the North Pole. They are depending on seafloor data to bolster their cases before the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, meeting this week in closed session to consider claims.

The Healy's voyage is part of a broader U.S. effort to extend its undersea zone of military and economic authority should it adopt the 25-year-old U.N. accord.

Canada must lead by example in claiming Arctic


The immediate source of our own new interest in the Arctic is that of sovereignty. We own the Arctic islands beyond any question. Under the rules of the Law of the Sea Treaty's 200-mile limit, we also almost certainly own all the waters in between them.

On the sound principle of "use it or lose it," Prime Minister Stephen Harper this summer flew north to announce a new army base would be established at Resolute Bay and an unused port at Nanisivik would be refurbished for the new fleet of six ice-breaking patrol boats.

There are two soft spots to our claim. One, insisted upon by the U.S., is that a "free passage" for the ships of all nations exists in between these islands, like it does between Gibraltar and North Africa.

The other, espoused most strongly by Russia, is that, under the Law of the Sea rules, the sub-sea Lomonosov Ridge extending out from its northern coast gives it a legitimate claim to Arctic territory all the way up to the North Pole. Competing claims for much of this territory are being made by Canada and Norway and Denmark. ...

It's generally assumed that one-quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas lies waiting beneath Arctic ice and rock.

In fact, while this estimate is usually attributed to the US Geological Survey, the United States has done no systematic study of the region. The actual extent of the potential reserves will be clarified by surveys now under way.

As significant is the likelihood that all this oil and gas may actually be usable in the sense that it can be extracted at an acceptable cost.

The change agent is global warming. No part of the globe is warming faster than the Arctic. While average global temperatures have increased by 0.6C since 1900, those in the Arctic have risen by more than 2C. ...

Harper has enunciated his "use it or lose it" principle just in time. We need to be there. We need even more to lay down strict rules, with severe penalties, for exploratory drilling, and for potential extraction and transportation.

We also need to set our own global warming house in order. Before we preach what others should practise, we must do a lot better than the world's second-worst (after Spain) record of a 25 per cent increase in greenhouse gases.

Russian bombers launch missiles over Arctic


The Russian air force spokesman did not specify the exact location of the exercises but confirmed that the TU-95MC bombers would take off from five air bases stretching from the Volga River city of Engels to Anadyr on the Chukotka Peninsula overlooking the United States. ...

President Vladimir Putin announced last month that Russia has resumed long-range patrols by its bomber planes for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Mr Putin said the resumption of patrols was needed to guarantee national security. In August RAF fighter jets were sent to intercepts a Russian bomber which was heading towards British air space over the North Atlantic.

The Arctic exercises follow a widely advertised scientific expedition to the North Pole last month with the task of finding justification for Russia's claims for a bigger slice of the Arctic zone, believed to have rich mineral resources.

Relations with both Europe and the United States have been deteriorating as Russia, buoyed by booming energy prices, has shaken off the post-Soviet malaise of the 1990s.

... and though oil & natural gas resources are driving all of this, these are not the sole advantages to global capitalism from destroying the Arctic...

Shippers chart polar bypass for clogged global trade routes


The emergence of a northern passage across the Arctic connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans could not be happening at a more propitious time.

The Arctic is not just about oil and gas. A ship travelling at 21 knots between Rotterdam and Yokohama takes 29 days if it goes via the Cape of Good Hope, 22 days via the Suez Canal and just 15 days if it goes across the Arctic Ocean. In coming years the Arctic will dramatically alter the dynamics of global trade.

A combination of global warming melting the ice and new shipping technology means polar shipping routes will open up in the next few years, drastically reducing the time it takes for container traffic to travel from Asia's booming manufacturing centres to the west's consumer

While it is possible for container ships to travel across the Arctic now, the amount of ice in winter makes travel extremely difficult, or too slow and expensive if the ships are accompanied by ice breakers. But this will all change as the ice disappears in coming years.

The emergence of a northern passage across the Arctic connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans could not be happening at a more propitious time as far as global trade routes are concerned. It is estimated that 90 per cent of all the goods in the world, measured in tonnes, are transported by sea, and rapid global economic growth, fuelled by China and India, means existing routes are becoming clogged.

Container shipments on international routes have increased annually by between 5 and 7 per cent in recent years, in line with world trade, meaning the volume of shipments approximately doubles every 10 to 15 years. ...

Canada's last igloo to be flattened amid Arctic boom


IQALUIT, Canada (AFP) - The last igloo in Canada's far north, which housed a family restaurant for 27 years, is set to be demolished to make room for offices, amid a flurry of economic activity in the remote Arctic.

Purchased in May by an Edmonton-based hotel operator, the Kamotiq Inn restaurant is to be replaced in the coming months by a 4,645 square-meter (50,000 square-foot) office building. ...

But restaurant manager Brian Czar, who will soon be out of a job, told AFP: "Times are changing. The North is opening up, the city is growing and there's a growing demand for real estate in Iqaluit."

Indeed, an international rivalry has heated up as global warming opens up the vast Arctic to economic activity.

Scientists predict the famed Northwest Passage could be ice-free for shipping year-round by mid-century, cutting sea travel from London to Tokyo by 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles).

Canada is at odds, however, with the United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway over it and parts of the Arctic seabed believed to hold 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves.

To bolster its claim, Canada has beefed up its military presence here, announcing last week its first Arctic deep sea port in Nanisivik and military base in Resolute, as well as six to eight new Navy ice-breakers.

Oil and mining companies, meanwhile, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Arctic exploration. Soon, forestry companies are expected to follow the Boreal Forest creeping north. Cruise ships are multiplying, allowing tourists to see polar bears and the spectacular break-up of Arctic ice each spring.

As well, the establishment of Canada's Nunavut territory in April 1999, splitting lands from the Northwest Territories to settle an aboriginal land claim, created thousands of government jobs in its new capital, Iqaluit, doubling its population to 7,000.

For the first time, the North's population has topped 100,000, according to the latest census in 2006.

Outside the Kamotiq Inn, newer Suzuki Vitaras, Ford F150s and Honda Civics zip along pot-hole peppered roads. Cars are relatively new to Iqaluit. A decade ago, there were only a handful of taxi cabs here, ferrying visitors. But the influx of people has driven new vehicle sales, to replace dog sleds and snowmobiles. Now, for five minutes every morning and evening, gridlock slows traffic on the only two paved roads in town, and dozens of gravel lanes, as workers drive from home to work and back. The town council is considering erecting the first traffic lights in Nunvavut, at the "Four Corners" intersection to ease drivers' rage.

On the outskirts, meanwhile, tents have been erected to house newcomers in summer, amid a housing shortage. New home construction has been unable to keep up with demand because there are too few sealifts to bring in building materials in warmer months, when Frobisher Bay is clear of ice.

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