Arctic Ocean Ice Meltdown - Emerging Issues in Energy, Environment and Sustainability

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Case Description
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Geolocation: 83° 28' 4.3678", 2° 10' 31.0547"
Total Area 1400000014,000,000 km²
5,405,400 mi²
Climate Descriptors cold-climate (permafrost, tundra, polar)
Important Uses of Water Other Ecological Services
Water Features: Arctic Ocean
Riparians: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, United States of America
Water Projects: The Arctic Council
Agreements: Agreement Between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Maritime Boundary, 1 June 1990, Agreement Between Norway and Denmark Together with the Home Rule Government of Greenland Concerning the Delimitation of the Continental Shelf and the Fisheries Zones in the Area Between Greenland and Svalbard, 20 February 2006, Agreement Between Canada and Denmark Relating to the Delimitation of the Continental Shelf Between Greenland and Canada, 17 December 1973, United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea


The changing climate in the Arctic Ocean has given rise to legal concerns regarding national defense and mineral exploitation. As a result the question of State sovereignty over the Arctic has become again a matter of political importance. Arctic States expect that the decrease in the sea ice will make the exploration and the exploitation of more oil and gas deposits economically feasible. Reports on the expected oil and gas available in the subsoil of the Arctic Ocean led to the suggestion that the “race” for the Arctic was inspired by the desire of the Arctic States to control these unexploited resources.

Despite the region's valuable resources, until fairly recently, the international community has paid little attention to the Arctic. As the Earth's atmosphere has warmed and the Polar Ice Cap has thawed, Arctic waters have become more navigable, causing fossil fuels in the Arctic to become more accessible. The resolution of Arctic territorial disputes will have a profound impact on geopolitics, property ownership, and international law especially in an economic climate of escalating oil prices.

But at the same time the North Pole is physically changing, exploration of the area is increasing. Improvements in marine technology — led by non-Arctic states such as South Korea — are allowing different types of vessels to enter the region, even in the presence of ice. The ongoing discovery of untapped oil and gas fields in the area is also driving the development of better technologies. In short, the North Pole region is in a state of massive transformation.

Moreover, as the navigability of the Arctic Ocean increases through climate and technology, Arctic States and the maritime community interested in shipping in the region face regulatory and infrastructure challenges.

Natural, Historic, Economic, Regional, and Political Framework

Geographical Background

The Arctic region has been defined and delineated in many different ways. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, a precursor to the Arctic Council, created the 'AMAP area', which includes the terrestrial and marine areas north of the Arctic Circle (66°32’N), and north of 62°N in Asia and 60°N in North America. This region has been modified to include the marine areas north of the Aleutian chain, Hudson Bay, and parts of the North Atlantic Ocean including the Labrador Sea.

More recent Arctic Council working groups such as Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), Emergency, Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR), and the Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR) have modified the extents of the AMAP area, or created new independent working boundaries. The CAFF boundary follows the Arctic treeline to include ecosystems, a focal point of its operations. The AHDR boundary is based largely on northern political units, and therefore only extends to the AMAP region as defined in its 1997 and 2002 reports.

The Arctic region may also be defined by temperatures. The terrestrial north is traditionally divided into the tundra and the taiga, or the boreal forest. The boundary between the two zones is defined by the timberline, the line beyond which there are no significant forest or woodlands of coniferous trees. This timberline is related to climatic factors—coniferous woodlands seldom extend into regions in which the mean (average) temperature for the whole of the warmest month of the year is less than 10ºC. The 10°C July isotherm (line that joins places of similar temperature) closely approximates the location of the timberline, and thus serves to define the boundary between the tundra and taiga regions.

There is no universally accepted definition of Arctic Ocean. However, it is generally accepted that there are only five coastal states—Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States.

Ecological Background

Social, Economic and Cultural Context

Arctic indigenous peoples are very diverse, and have mixed views and needs depending on where in the Arctic they live. Local communities also include expatriate workforces and other inhabitants, such as those involved with offshore oil industries.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) represents Inuit in Greenland/ Denmark, Canada, Alask in the US, and Chukotka in Russia. According to the ICC, the Inuit “welcome the opportunity to work in full partnership with resource developers, governments and local communities in the sustainable development of resources of Inuit lands.” According to Aqqaluq Lynge (the President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council from 1995 to 2002) :“Resource development must benefit Inuit, involve Inuit at every step, and avoid causing social and environmental damage or ‘an overwhelming influx of outside labour’ from coming into Inuit lands”.

Arctic oil and gas are often extracted by large, multi-national companies, and it is still unclear to what extent local communities are involved and/or benefit from this process. The significant commuter and expatriate workforce also means that the indigenous workforce will not enjoy many traditional economic benefits derived from income taxes. Thus, indigenous communities shoulder risks with no guarantee of equitable payout from oil companies.

Industrial oil and gas operations also involve high risk of environmental catastrophes and accidents. Harsh conditions, including extreme weather and temperatures, winter darkness and icebergs make Arctic oil spills extremely dangerous and difficult to deal with. The Arctic Ocean lacks adequate infrastructure, a condition exacerbated by the region’s remoteness. Even a small oil spill could develop into a much larger one due to demanding conditions and lack of proper equipment. These environmental risks are disproportionately borne directly by indigenous workforces, leading to further questions about indigenous support for oil and gas extraction in the Arctic.

Issues and Stakeholders

Involvement of the European Union

NSPD: Governance
Stakeholder Types: Supranational union

Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, all member states of the European Union, are involved in Arctic affairs. Since the Commission of the European Communities’ 2008 communication on Arctic governance, emphasis on foreign policy has decreased, and attention has shifted towards cooperative efforts in climate change and sustainable management of resources. EU engagement in Arctic affairs has been contentious, and its application for Permanent Observer status in the Arctic Council was deferred by Arctic States in 2011 and 2013.

Environmental Protection

NSPD: Ecosystems
Stakeholder Types: Environmental interest

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) focuses on species protection in the most vulnerable areas, and has drafted a comprehensive framework that would seek to establish “ecosystem-based ocean management” in territorial and international waters of the Arctic Ocean. This framework creates protocols for shipping, resource development, and a network of marine protected areas throughout the Arctic Ocean. It also ensures commercial compliance with approved environmental practices, and requires polluters to pay for cleanup efforts.

Greenpeace has openly opposed oil drilling in Arctic waters since 2010, through its “Save the Arctic” campaign. In 2010 and 2011, Greenpeace activists attempted to prevent ships from drilling for oil in the waters off western Greenland, drawing significant criticism from among local inhabitants. Greenpeace campaigns against Arctic seal hunting have also caused economic hardship for Inuit hunters, and in the current climate could lead to indigenous support for oil companies that promise economic wealth and other benefits.

Role of Arctic Council

NSPD: Governance
Stakeholder Types: Supranational union

The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental body established in 1996, and includes eight countries with a speaking role: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. The role of the AC in the dynamic international environment of the Far North has been difficult to define. The Council has been criticized for its soft law profile, lack of implementation monitoring, and for avoiding themes such as fisheries and geopolitical issues. It is still unclear whether the AC is the appropriate forum to protect sensitive ecosystems and indigenous livelihoods while regulating a growing international commercial interest.

Analysis, Synthesis, and Insight

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External Links

  • The European Union – An Arctic Actor? by Andreas Østhagen — Since launching its first Arctic communiqué in 2008, the European Union has strived to be accepted as a legitimate Arctic actor. Yet the EU's symbolic quest towards achieving observer status in the Arctic Council has proved disproportionately long and difficult. Despite starting out with lofty ideals about its Arctic engagement, the EU has been forced to re-adjust and modify its approach to the region. This chapter aims to explain why the EU has engaged in the Arctic in the first place and how it has gone about doing so, while also elaborating on the different contentious issues that has come about as a consequence of this engagement. To do this one must first conceptualise the EU as a foreign policy actor, as a tool for understanding the development of an EU Arctic policy.