In my school geography books, the Arctic was a frozen fastness, the distant domain of polar bears and fur-clad tribes, or the occasional intrepid explorer. But that was half a century ago. Today the mysteries of the Arctic are literally melting away: The top of the world is falling into the sea in huge blocks, bringing with it challenges that are global in nature.
It is in the Arctic that global warming presents its most dramatic face; the region is warming up twice as fast as the global average. The ice cap is shrinking fast — since 1980, the volume of Arctic sea ice has declined by as much as 75 per cent. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) which would connect the North Atlantic to the North Pacific through a short polar arc was once the stuff of fantasy. The melting ice has now made it a reality and a trickle of commercial cargo vessels has been going through every summer since the last decade. Models predict that this route could be ice free in summer by 2050, if not earlier.
These developments will have a critical impact in several sectors, most fundamentally on climate. The loss of ice and the warming waters will affect sea levels, salinity levels, and current and precipitation patterns. Already, the Tundra is returning to swamp, the permafrost is thawing, sudden storms are ravaging coastlines and wildfires are devastating interior Canada and Russia. The phenomenally rich biodiversity of the Arctic region is under serious threat. Habitat loss and degradation, the absence of year-long ice and higher temperatures are making the survival of Arctic marine life, plants and birds difficult while encouraging species from lower latitudes to move north. The Arctic is also home to about 40 different indigenous groups, whose culture, economy and way of life is in danger of being swept away. Increasing human encroachment with its attendant stresses will only aggravate this impact and upset a fragile balance.
Yet there is a flip side: The opening of the Arctic presents huge commercial and economic opportunities, particularly in shipping, energy, fisheries and mineral resources. Commercial navigation through the NSR is the most tempting: The distance from Rotterdam to Yokohama will be cut by 40 per cent compared to the Suez route. Oil and natural gas deposits, estimated to be 22 per cent of the world’s unexplored resources, mostly in the Arctic ocean, will be open to access along with mineral deposits including 25 per cent of the global reserves of rare earths, buried in Greenland.
Fortunately, none of this is easy. Navigation conditions are dangerous and restricted to the summer. Lack of deep-water ports, a need for ice-breakers, shortage of workers trained for polar conditions, and high insurance costs add to the difficulties. Mining and deep-sea drilling carry massive costs and environmental risks. These difficulties may provide the crucial window to work out norms that are focussed on balanced and sustainable development, before human greed overtakes everything. The complication is that, unlike Antarctica, the Arctic is not a global common and there is no overarching treaty that governs it, only the UN Convention of Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Large parts of it are under the sovereignty of the five littoral states — Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark (Greenland) and the US — and exploitation of the new resources is well within their rights.
Inevitably, given the high stakes, strategic games are afoot. Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark have put in overlapping claims for extended continental shelves, and the right to sea-bed resources; in 2007, Russia embedded a flag on the seabed below the North Pole to bolster its claim. The US, not a party to UNCLOS, is unable to put in a formal claim but is under pressure to strengthen its Arctic presence.
For the present, Russia is the dominant power, with the longest Arctic coastline, half the Arctic population, and a full-fledged strategic policy. Claiming that the NSR falls within its territorial waters (the US believes the passage lies in international waters), Russia anticipates huge dividends from commercial traffic including through the use of its ports, pilots and ice-breakers. Russia has also activated its northern military bases, refurbished its nuclear armed submarine fleet and demonstrated its capabilities, including through an exercise with China in the eastern Arctic. China, playing for economic advantage, has moved in fast, projecting the Polar Silk Road as an extension of the BRI, and has invested heavily in ports, energy, undersea infrastructure and mining projects. This limbering up of strategic postures is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
India’s interests in these developments, though distant, are not peripheral. Our extensive coastline makes us vulnerable to the impact of Arctic warming on ocean currents, weather patterns, fisheries and most importantly, our monsoon. Scientific research in Arctic developments, in which India has a good record, will contribute to our understanding of climatic changes in the Third Pole — the Himalayas. The strategic implications of an active China in the Arctic and its growing economic and strategic relationship with Russia are self-evident and need close monitoring. Fortunately, since 2013, India has had a toehold in the region. It has observer status in the Arctic Council, which is the predominant inter-governmental forum for cooperation on the environmental and development (though not the security) aspects of the Arctic. It is high time that our presence on the Arctic Council was underpinned by a strategic policy that encompassed economic, environmental, scientific and political aspects.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 2, 2021 under the title ‘When the Arctic warms’. The writer is the former Ambassador of India to the US. He also served as India’s High Commissioner to the UK.
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