Academic journal article Denver Journal of International Law and Policy

Thin Ice, Shifting Geopolitics: The Legal Implications of Arctic Ice Melt

Academic journal article Denver Journal of International Law and Policy

Thin Ice, Shifting Geopolitics: The Legal Implications of Arctic Ice Melt

Article excerpt


Navigators searched for a commercial sea route via the Arctic Sea for centuries. In North America, this route was historically known as the Northwest Passage, and generations of merchants and seamen sought the route because the existence of such a passage would dramatically cut travel time and costs. (1) Heavy ice in the Arctic Ocean once prevented utilization of both the Northwest Passage over the American continent and the Northern Sea Route over the Eurasian continent. Today, this may be changing. Arctic ice naturally recedes every summer when the region is exposed to long hours of sunlight, and the melting in recent years has been considerably greater than historical averages. Due to rising global temperatures, scientists project that the Arctic sea routes will open up to seasonal shipping within the century. (2)

The melting ice will also facilitate access to the Arctic's lucrative natural resources. Not only does the Arctic seabed have rich mineral deposits, but geologists also believe large quantities of oil and natural gas lie beneath the Arctic seabed. (3) As one expert has aptly noted, "[i]ronically, the great melt is likely to yield more of the very commodities that precipitated it: fossil fuels." (4) The growing pressure to discover diminishing supplies of oil and natural gas will likely entice oil and gas companies to extract the resources that are predicted lie under the Arctic sea.

Due to the hostility of the region, the Arctic expanse has been largely ignored or forgotten throughout modern history. Because Arctic sovereignty has never been completely determined or agreed upon, rights to the opening Arctic passageways as well as the natural resources located under the water are sure to be contested in years to come. (5) As a consequence, questions regarding the delineation of territorial sovereignty that are largely settled in other areas of the world remain contested in the Arctic. As states realize the value of the Arctic, they start to assert and enforce their privileged claims of dominion. Within the last few years, the international struggle for control of the Arctic's natural resources, navigational capacity, and military opportunities have dramatically increased. (6)

International law has a vital role to play in resolving the unfolding dispute. The provisions and definitions within the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (7) ("UNCLOS" or "the Convention") provide critical guidance for Arctic nations as they attempt to assert sovereignty claims. UNCLOS also establishes dispute resolution mechanisms that could be used to determine ownership of Arctic territory if countries cannot negotiate acceptable decisions. Moreover, although not yet ratified by the United States, this Convention is largely seen as a codification of customary international law. Therefore, UNCLOS should be regarded as a primary resource for resolution of Arctic disagreements.

Sovereignty disputes reflect the geopolitical realities of the region. Geopolitics is defined as the study of the influence of geography, history, and social science with reference to spatial politics and patterns at various scales. (8) The geopolitical balance of power in the Arctic is radically changing as the geography of the region undergoes massive transformation. Arctic geography has increasing economic and strategic significance because the resources in the area are becoming commercially available. Geopolitics, because it is preoccupied with borders, resources, flows, territories, and identities, can provide a pathway for critical analysis of future disputes. (9) Moreover, the interrelationship between power and geography can be used as a tool to understand and anticipated trends in the international law of the region. The changes in the Arctic have created a unique situation, and the analysis that follows will provide an in-depth review of the various legal claims.

This paper is divided into six parts. …

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