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The new cold war

The ‘Polar Code’, expected to boost traffic in the region, will have stringent rules on pollution.


February 2, 2014 12:17:38 am

New shipping rules are being worked out for the Arctic, where summer sea ice has shrunk by about two-thirds over three decades. Predictions by various models say the summer-time Arctic sea ice could disappear completely by 2050. The ‘Polar Code’, expected to boost traffic in the region, will have stringent rules on pollution.

Why this matters

The Northern Sea Route along Russia’s edge, that is likely to be free of ice first, can reduce the sailing distance between Asian ports and northern Europe by 40 per cent. The other major Arctic shipping route is the Northwest Passage, which connects Europe and Asia. It is nearly 5,000 nautical miles shorter than the 12,600 nautical mile distance between Europe and Asia through the Panama Canal. In the summer of 2007, satellite images recorded a period of ice-free water along the Northwest Passage for the first time.
Right now, there are no international conventions regulating Arctic shipping operations. Rules may come into force by 2016.
Only 71 ships crossed the Northern Sea Route last year, compared to the 18,000 handled by the Suez Canal, but about a 1,000 vessels travelled into the high Arctic (above 72 degrees north), with much of the growth coming from oil and gas activity, particularly in Russia.

 The current situation

As of 2010, most Arctic shipping routes were ice-free for only about 30 days. The commercial shipping route is currently open for only about four months a year.

 The concern

The code does not deal with the problem of ballast water discharge, which often introduces non-native species to a region, and continues to allow vessels to use heavy fuel oil, a potential pollutant.

 Who is seeking what

Russia submitted its initial claim to the North Pole, and 7,40,000 sq km of surrounding territory, to the UN in 2001. On November 27, 2006, Norway became the second and only other Arctic nation besides Russia to submit an extended continental shelf claim.
In December 2013, Canada said it would claim the North Pole, around 800 km north of Alert, Nunavut, the country’s — and the world’s — northernmost settlement, provoking threats of military deployment  by Moscow.

Geographically, Denmark is not within the Arctic region. However, because of its territory, Greenland, and its province, the Faroe Islands, its potential claims to the Arctic extend from Greenland up to the North Pole, via the potentially oil-rich Lomonosov Ridge.

Since international law only allows countries to extend their territory 200 km offshore, the claims are based on some creative interpretations of where the land masses end. All argue that mountain ranges that criss-cross the floor of the Arctic Ocean are extensions of their own continental shelves. It is up to the UN to adjudicate.

 Who’s gone farthest

On August 2, 2007, two Russian submersible vessels descended to the Arctic seabed beneath the North Pole, in first-ever such exercise, and placed a Russian flag there.

The primary mission of Russia’s icebreakers has been to ensure year-round navigability of the Northern Sea Route, which is used to deliver oil and gas equipment to Siberia and extract raw materials. The first such icebreaker was built at a Leningrad shipyard in 1959.

China is round the corner

Beijing wants the Arctic to be internationalised like the Antarctic. Since being admitted to the Arctic Council, it has invested heavily in polar research and launched initiatives with Russia, Sweden, Finland and Iceland to expand trade and investment. China is already operating in Greenland, while China National Petroleum Corporation has signed deals with Russia’s Rosneft to explore oil and gas fields in the Arctic.

 Where does India stand

It held its first Arctic expedition in 2007 and established its own scientific research station at Ny-Alesund, Spitzbergen. India is planning to acquire an icebreaker for scientific and business expeditions.

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