Tyler Mongan, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects change drivers that facilitate the Great Game in his second post for our EF blog. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
It is estimated that the Arctic could experience ice-free summers as early as 2050.However, the changes in the region are not uniform, resulting in an uneven distribution of stakeholder nation accessibility to trade routes, fisheries, and trillions of dollars in natural resources. Although the Arctic is considered a single region, in reality it is a climate with diverse zones. The maritime areas are opening at a faster rate, specifically along the coasts of Norway and Russia. One of the more important geopolitical consequences of this uneven ice-melting is that the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which links Northeast Asia and Northwestern Europe, is rapidly increasing in accessibility. This will also reduce shipping times between Northeast Asia and Northeastern North America via the Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap.
The opening of the NSR has allowed Russia and Norway to expand their Arctic operations over the past decade with investments in gas and oil infrastructure, deep-water ports, and arctic ships, including ice-breakers, that are essential for navigating the iceberg populated seas. These developments increase the potential for the NSR to become a viable alternative to the Suez Canal trade route, and could cut transportation times from 15 to 10 days.
On the opposite side of the circle, the Northwest Passage (NWP), primarily linking Canada, USA and Northeast Asia, is opening at a slower rate. Infrastructure Investment and resource accessibility in the region is more limited. Opening of the NWP, or even a Transpolar Passage, would benefit China’s trade operations and increase its role in the region. The uneven pace of ice melting favors investments in the Russian and Norwegian owned regions, with investment in North American regions remaining more uncertain.
Even with the increase in ice-free zones in the Arctic and the promise of shorter transportation times, the steady increase in vessels utilizing the routes must factor in new costs and risks into the investment equation. Access to new routes will be subject to transit and insurance fees, depend heavily on ice-breaker escorts and infrastructure, and will have limited search and rescue support.At the same time, the Arctic routes offer shipping companies the opportunity to utilize larger shipping vessels.Currently, ship capacity is constrained by the Straits of Malacca, the world’s second busiest waterway. With larger shipping vessels utilizing the Arctic sea routes, companies could offset the increase in costs by reducing the freight cost per unit.
Along with continued opening of new sea routes, stakeholder nations are also looking for opportunities to extend their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to claim a future stake in the resources hidden below the melting ice. It is estimated that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered gas are in the Arctic. Current Arctic mining operations of minerals, precious metals, and construction materials (rock, stone, sand, and gravel) could also expand.
Due to warmer waters pushing into the High North and changes in nutrient conditions and water currents, Arctic fisheries are transforming. Some harvest sites are experiencing an increase in stock productivity, while others are seeing a decline as fish migrate north to find colder water. For example, Greenland has seen an influx of Bluefin tuna and mackerel into their fishing region, boosting their export revenue. With the melting ice, fishing vessels will be able move further north to follow the changing migration patterns, but this could result in disputes over EEZ lines. If history repeats itself, we could see Cod War like scenarios.
If the ice continues to melt in the Arctic, competition in the region is more likely to be about access to transportation routes, oil/gas deposits, precious natural resources and fisheries, than it is about claiming new territory. The borders of stakeholder nations in the arctic region are well established. However, current organization structures, such as the Arctic Council and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), are weak buffers of potential Great Game conflicts.
The Arctic region is both an environmentally and geopolitically complex system; melting ice does not equal decreased costs and accessibility does not equal economic feasibility. A reversal of ice-melting trends would rapidly shift the trajectory of infrastructure development, sea route access, and fish migration patterns. And the hunt for trillions of dollars of undiscovered natural resources beneath the melting ice could be another Eldorado.