The eight nation Arctic Council will reconvene on May 15th to discuss security, sustainability, environmental protection and development. The nations which have coast lines on the Arctic Ocean formed the Council in 1998 in the face of the warming Arctic and threats and opportunities that an ice-free ocean would present.
In addition to the eight nations with coastlines on the Arctic – Canada, USA, Russia, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark(Greenland) – there are six nonvoting members who represent indigenous people and their interests. Observer status has been granted to eight nations. 14 other nations have applied to sit as nonvoting observers at this conference.
Some of the nations applying for status are puzzling at first glance, but the expected natural resources that lie under the ice have some already rumbling that they deserve a share of those riches – natural gas and oil. This year China, Japan, S.Korea, India, Italy, Singapore and the EU have all applied.
The Arctic is expected to be ice-free in the summer by 2050. This will create issues of sovereignity, security, environmental protection, transportation and search and rescue capability. Canada has a long coastline, 162 000 km but a small population. Currently the federal government has committed to building a deep water port at the cost of at least $5.3 billion. New ships capable of handling the harsh waters need to be built as well. Aircraft currently fly mercy missions, but planes are 5 to 6 hours away from the Arctic.
The Canada is split on the direction that the country should take as the Arctic changes. The Conservative government with Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq(Nunavut) seem to be taking a pro-business approach. Environmentalists fear that a free hand will be given to oil exploration corporations with little to ensure that spills and pollution will not occur.
There are wide opinions and stances with regard to the future of the Arctic Ocean and the plants and animals that live there. Disagreement has been common. Last November the Russian component banned its indigenous representative from participating.
It is imperative that fuzzy borders are firmed up and soon. While the 322km(200 mile) control zone is recognized and accepted, there is dispute about how far continental shelves extend under the waters. Overlapping claims are also a consideration. For instance, Canada and the US have overlapping claims where Alaska and the Yukon abut. Greenland and Canada are also close. Adding to the tangle is the fact that the US has declined to sign the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea.
Two thirds of the ocean lie in international waters. The average depth of the water is a little over 1000 metres, a depth that modern offshore drill rigs can handle easily. The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on Earth and the future opportunities and problems are rushing at us with warp speed.