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Drawing Borders in the Arctic: The Race To Colonise the North

 12 min read / 

Once a region largely overlooked by the international community for its inaccessibility and large ice masses, the Arctic is now at the forefront of some of the world’s most critical questions. As anthropocentric climate change continues to thaw boreal ice at unprecedented rates, the increased accessibility of the Arctic region presents new windows of opportunity for the Arctic nations of the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark while simultaneously exacerbating the significance of unsettled borders between these Arctic states. Compelled by rapid environmental change, countries are now mobilising to carve up as much land as possible in the Northern Circumpolar Region; often leading to complex overlapping claims and the potential for disagreement and conflict. The significance of the Arctic is also boosted by # the large numbers of fisheries, natural gas, oil, and rare earth minerals such as nickel, copper, uranium, and diamonds which are becoming increasingly open to exploitation as the ice melts away. Thus, as the Anthropocene continues to alter the physical geography of the Arctic circle, previous treaties, norms, and models of governance have become incompatible with the changing landscape and require a distinct and purposeful drawing of borders to avert tensions and promote a stable and cooperative environment in the High North.

The Arctic Is Shrinking

Historically, the circumpolar region has generally experienced periods of both cooling and warming. However, since the late 1970s when NASA started tracking Arctic Sea ice using satellite images, there has been a continuously steep decline in total sea ice in the Arctic, indicating the prevalence of warming. Data collected from Windnagel et al. (2017) at the National Snow and Ice Data Center shows Arctic Sea ice minimums have been declining at a rate of 13.2 per cent per decade and in 2017, Arctic ice hit record lows in its seasonal maximum in March and recorded its eighth lowest daily minimum extent in September. Figure 1 shows sea ice concentrations over the minimum extent months of August, September, and October, illustrating a marked decrease in these ice coverings. Furthermore, a 2017 report from the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) has estimated, given the current measure of ice retreat, the Arctic could be ice-free by the late 2030s.

Figure 1. Simulated Sea Ice Concentrations Averaged over August, September and October (Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory)

These findings endorse an argument scholars, and climate experts have been advancing for the past decade to describe the geological epoch we are in currently as the “Anthropocene”, to signify the start of significant human impact on the geology and ecosystems of the planet. Stefan et al. (2015) go further by arguing since the rise of mass industrialisation in the 1950s, the world is currently living in a “Great Acceleration” characterised by continual economic growth and increases in technological development. According to these authors,

“ In little over two generations — or a single lifetime — humanity (or until very recently a small fraction of it) has become a planetary-scale geological force.”

Previously considered too desolate and costly to access, the Arctic has become more navigable and proficuous for Arctic states due to the diminishing ice. The many resources currently becoming extractable in the region are creating a new sense of urgency for both Arctic states and for other countries around the world. Opportunity in the Arctic ‘terra nullius’ came to the fore when the United States Geological Survey predicted that the region held thirty per cent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and thirteen per cent of its oil. While it is hard to judge the validity of this conjecture at the moment, the Russian Minister for Natural Resources proclaimed the offshore Russian Arctic region possesses twice the volume of oil reserves held by Saudi Arabia.

Commercial Opportunities

Warming waters and increasingly ice-free stretches of ocean have aided the commercial development of the Arctic. Abundant rare earth mineral deposits are being exploited by both state and private corporations, and the opening of new shipping routes is making trade more navigable and less costly. Shipping shortcuts, such as the once legendary Northwest Passage, and the shortest shipping route between European and East Asian ports, the Northern Sea Route, are now becoming more navigable during the summer months, cutting weeks off the journey between Western and Asian markets and saving countries and shipping countries millions in the process. Climate change has prompted a new scramble towards the region’s plethora of resources. With global trade patterns adjusting to the improved economic feasibility of trans-Arctic shipping, the melting ice will steer globalisation into a revived contemporary phase characterised by further global economic integration.

With Arctic ice in decline, borders in the Arctic region are becoming more complex and open to negotiation. Under the commonly described constitution for the ocean, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), each country has the right to all living and nonliving resources within their exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles (nm) off their coast (Strandsbjerg 2012, 830). However, outside of these zones, the ocean is up for grabs to any country who can prove the area belongs to them. UNCLOS is a crucial part of understanding maritime borders in the High North because the international agreement lends a legal framework and a neutral measure for border delineation.

The Arctic Council

Additionally, the Arctic Council serves as a forum for mutual collaboration and regulation among the circumpolar states. Even though the Arctic Council acts as a mediator, the intergovernmental forum is not a universally accepted organisation and lacks rule-making capacity. The notion of Russia conceding to a much smaller political actor, such as Greenland, is extremely doubtful given Russia’s position in the world’s power hierarchy and recent antagonistic actions.

Besides the EEZ, the second fundamental method for understanding sovereign rights is the continental shelf. Much of the authentication of territorial rights revolves around whether claimed continental shelves constitute parts of a countries’ landmass found under the ocean. By using crude features such as continental shelves as determinants of boundaries, borders in the far north have become largely dislocated from political discourse. In an effort to prevent a future of resource-driven conflict, the governments of the ‘Arctic Five’ (the US, Denmark, Canada, Russia and Norway) came together in May of 2008 to sign the Ilulissat Declaration, stating “the collection of scientific data concerning the continental shelf” is the basis for any possible overlapping claims in the region.

Cartography Takes Central Stage

At the forefront of the dialogue regarding border boundaries in the Arctic is the science of cartography. Maps determine borders. Mapping practices form the crucial link between geography and law in the North, laying the groundwork for territorial dispute settlements. As the ice melts, countries have been launching submarines to gather data on their regions continental shelf to support their territorial claims. Once a state gathers enough suitable data to support their claim, they then submit their proposal to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), a United Nations body made up of both scientists and diplomats with the goal of establishing the validity of claims. While the evaluation of the bathymetric and geological data from the CLCS provides insightful analysis of the region’s makeup, assessments are merely a recommendation for states. Bilateral negotiations would still need to take place. Additionally, the CLCS lacks the legal authority to resolve disputes. Currently, only Norway and Iceland have UN-approved proposals, but other Arctic states are submitting claims currently waiting for approval. Because many of these claims overlap, these proposals have been a source of conflict. Figure 2 demonstrates these overlapping claims throughout the high north and showcases the many interests competing in the region.

Figure 2. Overlapping Maritime Jurisdiction and Boundaries in the Arctic Zone (Source: IBRU: Centre for Borders Research, Durham University)

The power of ‘scientific cartography’ is a  time-honoured phenomenon and has affected many different disputes throughout history. The Tordesillas Treaty of 1492 established an agreement where the empires of Spain and Portugal negotiated territorial claims through cartography. The advent of aviation allowed the influence of European imperialism to be broadened by the mapping of the earth’s climate and physiography from above. In the present day, increases in technology have generated new meanings for cartographic practices. The computer technology of geographic information systems (GIS) helps marginalised indigenous tribes in Peru gain a collectively empowered voice in regards to their land, thereby altering power relations between natives and the government.

Due to the profound influence cartographic practices play in determining the borders within the Arctic, the notion of “cartopolitics” has been advanced to describe how cartography and law determine disputes regarding sovereignty. By employing the geological features of continental shelves to define geographical claims, sovereign rights in the Arctic have been transformed into a matter of cartography. Thus, a theatre of cartopolitcs relying heavily upon the intersection between science and nature rather than geopolitics is taking place in the Arctic.

Russia Looks North

With arguably the most to gain from the changes of the Arctic, Russia has been using cartography to make a push into the Arctic and is sending serious signals to other nations. Russian brashness in the North has prompted chiding from the West, which views the new Russian revisionist policy and projection of power, such as their annexation of Crimea in 2014 and aggressive behaviour in Ukraine as possible sources of conflict in the region as well as a deterrent for future economic investment. With half of the Arctic flanked by Russian coast, eleven times zones across the Northern Hemisphere, and an Arctic border over 4,000 miles long, the resurgent superpower is the most active player in the region and has the most influence. In 2007, the Russian Arktika expedition planted a Russian flag on the seabed of the North Pole, claiming the Lomonosov Ridge as an extension of its continental shelf and in the process symbolizing its brazen projection of power.

Moreover, Russia is currently undergoing a process of militarization and growth in the Arctic not seen since the Cold War. Russian militarization is a harbinger of Moscow’s push towards regaining power and status on the international stage, one in which energy dominance plays a major role. All across the North, Russia is strengthening and modernising its outposts as well as conducting military exercises with its recently established Arctic special forces brigade, and increasing its military capacity, to flex its muscle. In a 2014 statement by Russian Deputy Defense Minister Dmitry Bulgakov, Russia plans to have fifty operating and renovated airfields in the Arctic by 2020 and the military has announced the building of a new line of nuclear powered icebreakers and Borei-class fourth-generation nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.

Soft Power In the Snow

As a complement to a hard power approach, Russia has also been conducting efforts to exert soft power throughout the region in order to further cement their claims. Important to wielding power in a territorial area, the projection of culture and identity plays a key role in associations with a particular area. Russia attempts to tie its identity into the region through everything from museums to lavish consulates, across an array of small Arctic islands. Making money is not the motivation for these actions. Rather, Russia’s motivation is centred on sinking its roots throughout the region to ensure their influence is protected when they are at the table with the other Arctic states negotiating the Arctic borders, and that they have influential bargaining chips and leverage over other states. Without an adequate response from both the The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States, Russian power will go unchecked in the region, which will have significant consequences for all actors involved in the North.

While the Anthropocene continues to alter the geographic makeup of the Arctic, tensions over uncertain borders in the region will further increase. Exacerbating these strains is the lack of a clear agreement among Arctic nations regarding transparent spatial foundations for the implementation of borders as well as militaristic remnants of imperialist geopolitics from Russia. Because there is no panacea for these issues, the Arctic community needs further implementations of multilateral policy in order to keep pace with the changing environment. Through rapid environmental change, the Arctic has moved to the forefront of evolving geopolitics as new opportunities to extract resources and project power are appearing while the underdeveloped and resource-rich areas of the planet are becoming increasingly scarce. By securing and cementing unsettled areas through cartographic practices, the governments of Arctic nations can produce a proper foundation where border practices and territorial sovereignty can be established. Through multilateral partnerships, major cities such as Reykjavik, Norilsk, and Anchorage have the potential to become major shipping ports and financial hubs, and the region could be open to refreshed growth.

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