Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. Rating: NNNNN
What connects oil at $135 a barrel with last month’s discovery of huge cracks in the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf at the top of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago? A new, even Colder War?
The cracks in the ice were discov-ered by scientists tagging along with a Canadian army snowmobile expedition officially called a “sovereignty patrol.”
The army was showing the flag because Canada, like the other Arctic countries, suspects that valuable resources, the most valuable being oil and gas, will become accessible there once the ice melts.
More and more of the Arctic sea ice is thin “first-year” ice. Only about a metre thick, it spreads across the ocean each winter but tends to melt the following summer.
Melting has taken big bites out of the edge of the much thicker “permanent” ice in most recent summers. So everybody is watching to see what happens this year.
“If we see this a couple of years running, that tells us... we are about 20 or 30 years ahead of where we are supposed to be, based on the climate models,” explains Jim Maslanik of the University of Colorado.
Drilling for gas and oil beneath that ocean may soon begin. Hardly a week goes by without somebody pointing to the U.S. Geological Survey’s report that the Arctic basin contains a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas.
But the event that did most to trig-ger this new concern about sov-er-eignty was polar explorer Artur Chilingarov’s publicity stunt last summer – taking a three-?man submarine to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean to plant a Russian flag.
Chilingarov is now deputy speaker of the Russian parliament and Vladimir Putin’s personal “envoy” to the Arctic.
The real issue is who owns the rights to the seabed, and the Russian claim is pretty ambitious: the Lomonosov Ridge, the subsea mountain range that goes straight across the middle of the Arctic Ocean and is an extension of the Russian terri-torial shelf.
If the Law of the Sea tribunal does not ultimately accept that claim, Moscow may have an even larger claim in reserve.
In the early 20th ?century, seven countries laid claim to “sectors” of Ant-arctica: pie-?shaped slices running along lines of longitude (which converge at the poles). The width of those slices depended on where the various claimants owned territories near Antarctica. Those claims are dormant because of a subsequent treaty banning economic development in Antarctica, but the precedent has not been forgotten.
On the basis of that precedent, Russia could lay claim to about half the Arctic Ocean along lines of longitude running from the far eastern and western ends of the country up to the North Pole. In 1924, the old Soviet Union did precisely that. Nobody accepted that claim then, and they wouldn’t now if Russia raised it again.
But Russia has the big Arctic ports and the nuclear-?powered ice?breakers to make its claim stick, and nobody else does.That is where the current panic comes from. It has certainly got the hens in the chicken coop all stirred up.
As is often the case with hens, they are overreacting. Russia is in a more assertive mood than it was a decade ago, but there are no signs that it intends to pursue its claims by force.
Moreover, there’s no serious basis for the claim that a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves lie under the Arctic Ocean.
It seems implausible, given that the Arctic Ocean only accounts for slightly less than 3 per cent of the earth’s surface.In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey never said a quarter of the world’s oil and gas lies under the Arctic. Neither has any other authoritative source, yet this factoid has gained such currency that it even influences government policy.
It’s interesting how readily people will believe something when they really want to.