Santa’s getting company.
Fast-melting sea ice has opened a potential new Arctic shipping lane across the North Pole, which will give powerful nations easier access to the frozen zone’s vast riches — but has also sparked fears of war.
The Arctic Council predicts that, during the summers, sea ice will be gone by 2040 — allowing for a major new seasonal passageway. This Transpolar Sea Route (TSR) would be the fastest way to get around the region and could spur a spike in mining, drilling and trade over the next quarter-century.
Territorial stakes are yet to be sorted out. The US, Russia and six other countries — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Norway — are jockeying for claims to the surrounding area’s oil, gas and rare-earth minerals and metals: precious resources needed to power computers, phones, electric cars and satellites. China, meanwhile, is claiming “near Arctic” status so it, too, can benefit from the wealth of the region.
“Today is a pivotal moment that is going to reshape the energy market and the supply chain,” said Rebekah Koffler, an intelligence analyst and author of “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America.”
“The Arctic is going to be the future battlefield for economic dominance and possession of natural resources.”
The new passage, which runs about 2,000 nautical miles and was first crossed in 2012, currently is navigable only with high-level icebreaker ships.
But should melting ice make it more easily crossable, the TSR would offer lower costs and delivery times, particularly to Europe and Asia. It is hoped that tankers and cargo carriers will be able to sail over the top of the earth using the TSR in summer, saving more travel time than the two main coastline-hugging waterways that currently link the Arctic to southern ports.
“You could see a ship being sent right over the North Pole as early as 2035,” said Marc Lanteigne, an Arctic researcher in Norway. “Floating sea ice is still a hazard, but the degree of danger gets lower and lower each year.”
But the new passage could also escalate tensions between nations.
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country will “knock out the teeth” of any foreign adversary that challenges its sovereignty over any territory it claims. While he didn’t specifically name the Arctic, Russia is currently massing a formidable array of military weapons in the region — including the Poseidon 2M39, a stealth nuclear-powered torpedo dubbed the “super-weapon.”
Days after Putin’s comments, President Biden warned that the climate change could “generate potential conflict in terms of dominating the Arctic.”
“The distance between Russia and NATO countries in the Arctic has been reduced to about 100 miles,” added Koffler. “And everyone is posturing for dominance. The US Army says we’re going to dominate the region, but the Russians have their own strategy. They’re screaming that they’re going to be the only non-NATO country in the Arctic Group. And China has joined the fight. They’re trying to tap into the Arctic as a major shipping route.”
Until now, commercial shippers from the US, Canada and western Europe have relied on the Northwest Passage (NWP), which was opened widely in 2007. The Northern Sea Route (NSR), which started in 2017, is dominated by Russia.
Up for grabs is greater access to a region that holds 13% of the world’s untapped oil and 30% of its drillable natural gas, according to the US Geological Survey.
There’s also an estimated $1 trillion in metals and minerals, ranging from gold and silver to beryllium, cadmium and lithium — all in great demand due to the explosive growth of personal electronics and electric-battery cars.
While shipping, mining, drilling and fishing rights have been established along the Arctic coastal waterways for each country, none have been set for the wider Arctic. And it’s led to bitter disputes.
In 2015, the Russians told a UN commission that everything is theirs, including all international waters from the continental shelf to the North Pole. Greenland has made a similar claim. Canada has rejected those arguments. Meanwhile, the US and Canada are at odds over who controls the NWP.
In any case, the UN doesn’t have the power to decide who gets what. It says that valid but overlapping stakes must be sorted out between competing nations.
Meanwhile, deposits in the Arctic have already enriched all Northern nations — and Russia most of all.
Moscow’s offshore drilling along the Yamal Peninsula, which is brimming with petroleum and natural gas below the seafloor, has delivered the biggest profits in the region.
“For the Russians, the Arctic is their lifeblood,” said Capt. David “Duke” Snider, a former Canadian Coast Guard director who now runs Martech Polar Consulting, which helps ships navigate the Arctic.
Canada, meanwhile, cashes in with its Mary River mine on Baffin Island, which has plumbed one of the world’s biggest troves of iron ore since 2015. The Red Dog zinc mine in northwest Alaska — owned by a group of local Native American nations — has churned out $5 billion in gross profits since 2005.
Russia also has a leg up with its fleet of 50 icebreakers, including one of the best: the Vladimir Rusanov, which made news when it became the first ship to cross the NSR with a hull full of liquefied natural gas in 2018.
“It’s absolutely state of the art,” Snider said.
He noted that the US has just one such ship in the area — the Michael A Healy, a diesel-powered, 420-foot cutter and the largest ship in the US Coast Guard’s fleet.
There’s a reason former president Donald Trump in 2019 floated the idea of buying Greenland from Denmark (not that it was for sale). Greenland has enormous quantities of metals and minerals, including gemstones and neodymium, a rare-earth metal and powerful magnet used in hard drives, hybrid vehicles and aircraft.
Scores of potential mine sites have been identified across Greenland, the world’s largest island, though extracting the resources is another matter. It requires heavy equipment, roads, bridges, deep water ports and other infrastructure. Only about 56,000 people live in the country.
“It’s not so much a matter of finding what’s there; it’s getting it out,” said Lanteigne.
Greenland, which was once ruled by Denmark as a colony, is now self-governed, with its own parliamentary lawmakers and a prime minister, liberal-leaning Mute Bourup Egede, who was elected in 2021.
But Denmark controls its foreign policy and defense, and funds two-thirds of its annual revenue, about $620 million. In 2013, Greenland’s parliament ended a 25-year mining ban on uranium and other minerals, allowing Denmark, or other countries it approves, to expand speculation for rare elements on the landmass.
Still, the Arctic Circle remains harsh, remote and bone-chillingly cold, as well as dark from early October to early March.
And though it’s warming faster than anywhere on earth, the area’s dwindling sea ice is, in some ways, making transportation more treacherous, according to Snider.
He says that ice bridges that once held back “multiyear” ice — hard, thick masses built up over many consecutive years — are now collapsing, bringing dense, calved-off hunks of ice into waters where they’ve never been seen before.
“Hitting one is like running into a brick wall,” Snider said.
Wildly unpredictable weather poses another threat.
“An early winter freeze can trap ships,” he said, noting that 14 Russian vessels got stuck in sea ice on the NSR near the Siberian coast last year, with one trapped for a month. “You hear these predictions of people zooming around the Arctic. It’s just not happening.”
The added costs of travel through frozen seas — weather-induced delays, sky-high insurance, icebreaker escorts — have limited trips through the NSR to about 30 per year and NWP voyages to about a dozen, he said. The 25% increase in Arctic shipping between 2013 and 2019 mostly involved local runs ferrying goods to small towns, not transcontinental crossings, Snider said.
Meanwhile, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has put a deep freeze on what had long been a friendly, information-sharing rapport between American and Russian researchers, according to Carin Ashjian, a biologist and researcher with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
The two sides once worked together informally, exchanging data on topics like melting ice and the migration of fish and mammals, but Russian scientists have stopped communicating and are no longer attending international conferences and other gatherings, where relationships were built, she said.
“We’re just not able to see each other now,” Ashjian said.
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