In the late 1960s and early 1970s, environmentalists were fighting construction of a Trans Alaska Pipeline, which was to carry North Slope oil from the shore of the Arctic Ocean to the ice-free port of Valdez. Their ultimate doomsday scenario was an oil spill in the Arctic spreading over the sea ice, absorbing solar radiation, and melting the polar ice cap.
It turns out that the polar ice cap is melting anyway - and the event is spurring a new rush to petroleum in the Arctic.
Everyone who follows the news at all knows by now that most of the Arctic Ocean is losing ice and that scientists expect all the ice to disappear before the end of the century. The standard model predicts an ice-free Arctic by 2070. Ignatius Rigor and colleagues from the University of Washington have found that this year's ice pack is the thinnest on record, and if things continue on their current trajectory, the ice will be gone by 2030. (They've produced an online movie of the shrinking ice cap.)
An ice-free Arctic Ocean would probably mean the end for polar bears, which walk on the ice to hunt seals, and would make it harder to hide nuclear submarines, which have been lurking under the ice pack since the 1950s, but it would be open to merchant shipping, oil drilling platforms, and, potentially, mineral exploitation. (Scooping minerals from the sea bed isn't a new idea. Think of the Glomar Explorer, built in the early 1970s allegedly to harvest manganese nodules from the deep ocean floor but actually to salvage a Soviet nuclear submarine lost 13,000 feet beneath the surface.) The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that up to 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas may lie below the Arctic Ocean floor; gold, platinum, and other metals may also be there for the taking.
The nations with Arctic territory - the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark (which has a claim on the Arctic because it owns Greenland) – are already jostling for shares of the coming pie. In general, each coastal nation gets exclusive economic rights within 200 nautical miles of its coast, but if it can prove its continental shelf extends beyond 200 miles, it can claim exclusive economic rights farther out. (Extending one's jurisdiction out toward the North Pole may prove less contentious than defending the lateral boundaries of that jurisdiction against the claims of sharp-elbowed nations next door.) Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the U.S. has never signed, within 10 years after ratifying the treaty, a nation may submit arctic sea floor claims to an international panel, which can ultimately decide who gets what.
All the nations are busily mapping the sea floor to substantiate future claims. Russia and Norway have already submitted their claims. Canada and Denmark have six and seven years, respectively, in which to do so. The U.S. is in no position to make a claim until it ratifies the Law of the Sea Convention.
In an Aug. 2 publicity stunt that grabbed worldwide attention, Russia sent two mini submarines more than 13,000 feet down below the ice to plant a Russian flag encased in titanium on the Lomonosov Ridge, which Russia claims extends its continental shelf all the way to the North Pole. Canada, not to be outdone, has announced that it will build a military training base and a deep-water docking facility in the Arctic, along with $7 billion worth of armed Arctic patrol vessels. It has also sold oil and gas exploration rights in the Beaufort Sea east of Alaska to Imperial Oil and ExxonMobil Canada for $585 million (Canadian).
The U.S. has been mapping energetically to support its own claims. (The Coast Guard ship Healy left Seattle in August for a four-week mapping excursion.) And it might finally sign the Law of the Sea Convention.
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