Arctic Politics Are Getting Warmer: A New Scramble for Territory?

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Arctic Politics Are Getting Warmer: A New Scramble for Territory?


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


IS the Arctic heading for a new era? A by-product of the speculation over climate change has been the suggestion that global warming will enable greater access to the Arctic's considerable resources. This could trigger a new scramble for territory, similar to that of the nineteenth century's scramble for Africa. The Arctic used to be of interest mainly to science. Now increasingly it is a matter of political, economic and legal interest.

This article is in three parts. The first part provides some background information on the Arctic. It then looks at the current state of the scramble. It concludes with some speculations about how the politics of the Arctic could evolve.

Part of the Arctic's political complexity comes from the fact that the Arctic is not one single landmass (unlike, say, Antarctica). The Arctic region is 14.5 million square km (5.5 million square miles). The region contains both the mainly ice-covered Arctic Ocean and some of the surrounding land, including all of Greenland (a Danish territory) and Spitsbergen (administered by Norway), and the northern parts of Alaska, Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. The Arctic Ocean is the planet's smallest and least explored ocean.

The Arctic boundary is defined in three ways: northern limits of strands of trees on land (the treeline), the line of average July temperature of 10 degrees C (50 degrees F), or the Arctic Circle which is based on the latitude 66 degrees and 33 minutes North. The region is very diverse in terms of landscape, ranging from pack and drift ice to rugged shores, flat coastal plains, hills and mountains.

The region's name comes from the Greek Arktos (the 'bear'), reflecting the claims made around 300 BC by a Greek explorer who claimed to have sailed into a frozen sea north of Scotland. The Greeks named the region after the starry constellation above the region. They - and most later civilizations - expressed little interest in taking the exploration any further because of the bleak coldness of the inhospitable environment.

Indigenous peoples have lived within the region for thousands of years. As can be expected with such a harsh environment, they tended to live a quiet, fairly nomadic, isolated, independent-minded subsistence existence. They had minimal contact with the outside world.

The neighbouring countries gradually expanded northwards." [1] The Russians, for example, reached Siberia in the sixteenth century. They now control the largest single amount of Arctic territory (ahead of Canada). They were particularly interested in the fur of the local animals. The Russians were rarely welcomed by the Indigenous peoples. The British had similar problems with subduing Indigenous peoples in northern Canada. The Russians (who had controlled trading ports in the Americas) sold Alaska to the US in 1867. There was no consultation with the Indigenous peoples. The US suddenly became a player in Arctic politics (although Alaska remains the US's largest state and the third least populated one).

British maritime exploration over the centuries was mainly motivated by a desire to find a way through Canada to China and the Far East (and so avoid the Spanish and Portuguese fleets that patrolled their colonies in the rest of the Americas). The fabled North-West Passage was not located at that time. But the search for it cost many lives, including that of the 1845 expedition of Captain Sir John Franklin whose trip involved two ships and 128 men, all of whom perished (triggering the nineteenth century's largest search and rescue mission [2]).

It was only with the improvements in both technology and better planning, that the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen was able to learn far more about the region. He was the 'father of modern polar exploration' [3] who had learned about polar exploration on Greenland in 1888 before acquiring the idea of having a ship that could, in effect, ride on top of the ice (rather than try to smash through it). …

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Arctic Politics Are Getting Warmer: A New Scramble for Territory?
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