If Climate Change Isn't Happening, Why The Fight For The Arctic?

Every northern country is making territorial claims to land being exposed under melting ice, creating a truly cold new Cold War near the North Pole.

If you don't believe that the Arctic ice cap is melting, ask the Russians about it.

In 2007, while many of us were busy arguing about whether or not climate change is real, a Russian mini-sub planted a titanium flag on the sea floor far beneath the floating ice lid, claiming the North Pole for the Motherland. Not surprisingly, that claim didn't go over well with the representatives of the United States, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland, all of whom also have strong territorial interests--and military presences--in the Arctic.

Until recently, nobody seemed to care much about who owned what up there among the polar bears, but things have changed. This summer saw the second largest meltback of sea ice on record. What was once considered a useless, frozen wasteland is now a booming frontier, and national tempers are heating up along with the local climate.

One of the first signs of trouble was a spat between Canada and Denmark over Hans Island, a tiny bump of barren rock in the icy channel between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. Early surveys had left the rock's ownership quietly unresolved for years, but with all signs pointing to the opening of lucrative sea lanes between Europe and Asia, new deposits of fossil fuels and minerals, and future open-water fishing grounds, Hans Island suddenly mattered.

In 1984, a team of Danes helicoptered over from Greenland to plant a flag on it, purportedly along with a bottle of liquor and a sign that read "Welcome to the Danish island." A Canadian gunboat patrol later replaced the flag with their own banner (nobody seems to know what happened to the booze), and thus it went back and forth for years, with Canadian politicians proclaiming as recently as 2005 that the Danish intrusion was an "invasion of Canada." Satellite imagery finally stopped the "flag war" by showing that the boundary line splits the island rather than sidestepping it. But the Hans Island incident was only the beginning.

Under the Law of the Sea Treaty, even the smallest patch of land offshore can anchor territorial rights to huge swathes of surrounding ocean. Russian geologists and politicians now say that the Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea belt of rock bisecting the heart of the Arctic Ocean, is an official extension of their mainland. This, of course, ignores the fact that it lies beneath thousands of feet of water and also comes close to the continental rims of Canada and Greenland, as well. In July of this year, a Russian nuclear icebreaker mapped the sea bed in hopes of bolstering that bold assertion. If the United Nations approves the claim, then Russia stands to gain 380,000 square miles of what used to be considered international waters, along with exclusive rights to massive reserves of oil and gas on the shallow continental shelves.

Ironically, the artificial global thaw that spawned this land grab was largely caused by the nations that are now hoping to cash in on it; the United States, for example, was the planet's largest emitter of greenhouse gases until China surpassed it recently. Stay tuned for more drama as some of the world's most powerful nations squabble over a high-stakes bonanza that will reshape the geography of the far north for thousands of years to come. Let's hope that this burgeoning "cold rush" doesn't trigger any hot conflicts, as well.

[Image: Flickr user Polar Cruises]

Curt Stager is an ecologist, paleoclimatologist, and science journalist with a PhD in biology and geology from Duke University. His new book is DEEP FUTURE: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth (St. Martin's Press, March 2011).

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12 Comments

  • Sam Earle

    The arctic ice is melting while the antarctic ice has grown to record size. This suggests not a global warming but a climactic shift to a warmer north and a colder south. Competent studies show there has been no aggregate warming in 15 years, and that the overall trend is slightly to the cool side. This is all quite modest compared to previous periods of cooling and warming, as in ice ages and their aftermaths.

  • Steve Loughin

    To Chris B -- I think you mean carbon dioxide.  Even when emissions contain CO (monoxide) it combines with oxygen to become the dioxide form.  This is what traps the heat and causes climate change, though other gasses are active too, like methane (CH4) and even water (H2O).  

    To James FC -- There really is no dispute if you're talking to scientists (I'm a physicist, for example). Svante Arrhenius (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S... proved that CO2 causes a greenhouse effect over 100 years ago.  The CO2 concentration is currently 395 ppm (part per million) or thereabouts.  Never before have we had levels that high.  The balance is normally maintained by plants which take in CO2 and release oxygen, and animals which take in oxygen and exhale CO2.  If you augment our CO2 respiration by burning coal, oil, and gas to heat and cool, and light, and transport us, and multiply by 7 billion people, then at the same time cut down huge swaths of forest thereby reducing the CO2-absorbing part of the ecosystem, it should come as no surprise that CO2 is rapidly increasing, and it's we that are causing it. (since we're cutting down the trees, and burning the coal.)  The outcome is that because of climate shifts, people are going to be on the move, looking for more hospitable land to inhabit and (as in Sudan) this usually leads to war.  Conservative estimates are that about 10% of the population will have to move (or die) in the next 50 years.  Your example of the "oatmeal - car wreck" false correlation is one that we scientists are always mindful of, but in this case, we are almost all in agreement:  we're causing climate change. 

  • chris branning

    It is nothing but lack of critical thinking and common-sense to think that pumping 90 million tons of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere EVERY SINGLE DAY does not affect the environment.  Duh.

  • Keith Pinster

     Chris - How about the fact that CO2 levels actually FOLLOWS climate change rather than LEADS climate change?  By your logic, the fact that there is more plastic in landfills proves that the sun is getting hotter.  Both are happening, but let's just ignore the fact that there is no correlation between the two.

  • Justin_lewis92

    Yes because CO2 is the most problematic greenhouse gas, it's not like there are many other significant compounds all being produced at levels that far exceed anything natural bio-geo-chemical processes are capable of.

  • Michael Brown

    I believe the lack of critical thinking would be most dominant among those who can look at the cataclysmic enviromental shifts that took place on this earth long before the industrialization of man and still believe that man is responsible for change on such a grand scale.

    How do you think the Ice Age started - followed by the huge warming trend that came behind it, thus ending the ice age?  If you think this is warming we're experiencing now, how much 'warming' do you think it took to end an ice age? 

    Oh I know, un-industrialized man with all the carbon he put into the atmoshphere by burning wood to stay warm created these huge shifts in the earth's atmosphere thousands of years ago.  Yeah, that did it.  Yet today, with automobiles, oceanic cargo ships, jet engines, coal-fired powerplants, and Hummer SUVs we have only managed to move the earth's surface temp needle a fraction of a degree.

    Hmmmmm.  Sounds like the general masses have been dooped by the all-knowing scientists whose studies are driven by policy-makers with political scores to settle yet again.

  • Justin_lewis92

     Sounds like you, sir, have no idea about geologic time scales.

    The rapidity of change in atmospheric and oceanic chemical composition that we are seeing today is wholly unprecedented, because in the case of many of the problematic compounds, anthropogenic production is far greater than anything possible in natural processes.

  • Harvey Stone

    I spent several years researching Arctic weather, energy reserves and national claims for my environmental thriller novel, MELTING DOWN (www.meltingdownnovel.com). While everything Ms. Antrim said is very accurate, it is also true that both nations and human beings have tendencies for conflict - especially when the stakes are as high as they are in the Arctic with the untapped oil and gas reserves and the cost savings from shorter shipping routes. In that regard, it is worth noting that, among others, Russia and Canada have announced an increased military presence in the Arctic, and the US is bemoaning its current lack of one.

    In regard to James FC's comments: it is basic physics that gravity holds anything with mass (atoms and molecules) within the atmosphere - except for a few human based rockets in the last 50 years. The speed at which trapped CO2 and other greenhouse gas molecules from the burning of oil, coal and natural gas are accumulating is unprecedented - not the total volume. Those additional molecules trap heat. Adding heat to any system changes the system. In the atmosphere, we see it most readily in the melting of the Arctic sea ice and continental ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. We also see it in more severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, heatwaves, droughts and even cold snaps that are regional impacts caused by the added atmospheric heat.

  • james FC

    The argument isn't over whether there is global warming occurring. Cooling and warming cycles have occurred forever.

    The dispute is whether it is man-made. THAT is what has not, and probably cannot be proved. 

    People eat oatmeal for breakfast every day. People are killed in car wrecks every day. Therefore eating oatmeal "causes" deaths in car wrecks.

    It is nothing but hubris to think that we can cause changes on this massive a scale. 

    Hubris, look it up.

  • Stuart Bogue

    It is hubris to think we can do what we have done and not have had an effect. Climate represents a result to a combination of factors.Introducing new and heretofore non existent factors can and should be expected to create a different result than those previous. Warming and cooling ocurs naturally.The extremely short period of time over which these changes  have  appeared  is the basis for any concern  .These new rates of change(result)match the new set of factors(human industrial activity). No one disagrees that they have or have not occurred naturally at any point. Massive shifts in climate regions are being experienced,and much quicker than ever before. To believe we have no effect on a closed loop is ridiculous.

  • Caitlyn Antrim

    This article touches a lot of 'hot' button phrases: "land grab," "national tempers are heating up along with the local climate," "claiming the North Pole for the Motherland" (note: Russian no more claimed the north pole by planting their flag there than the US claimed the moon by raising our flag there in 1969). I know that threats of conflict sell stories, but the real story is the largest-ever division of previously unclaimed territory and resources peacefully and in accordance with international law.

    With regard to the point about Russia's claim to the Lomonosov Ridge (a claim that is likely to be made by Denmark and Canada as well), the fact that the ridge is deeply submerged does not prevent it from being claimed as part of the continental shelf of a coastal state. The legal definition of the continental shelf is written into Article 76 of the Law of the Sea Convention (not 'Treaty'). It provides that extensions of territorial material may extend beyond the 350 mile limit otherwise imposed on seafloor ridges. The Lomonosov Ridge is believed to be a section of the continental material once part of the submerged continental crust boarding Greenland before it was split away by seafloor spreading. if Russia, as well as Canada and Denmark/Greenland can prove this case, then they all have the legal right to claim part of the Lomonosov Ridge and will have to resolve among themselves how to divide it.
    As to the massive reserves of oil and gas on the Russian continental shelf, that matter is already resolved, without dissension, based on the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone recognized both under the LOS Convention and by President Reagan's 1983 Ocean Policy proclamation. That claim does not rest on the decision of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (which, by the way, is an autonomous committee established by the parties of the LOS Convention and is overseen by the parties to the Convention. It is not part of the United Nations, though it does receive some staff and office support for its work from the UN's legal office). 

    Overall, this article overplays the threat of conflict over claims to the Arctic. In 2008 the five Arctic coastal states agreed in Ilulissat Greenland that they would resolve conflicting claim according to the Law of the Sea (meaning the LOS Convention for Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark and customary law based on the LOS Convention for the US, which at this moment is in the ratification process but not yet a party to the Convention). Furthermore, Russia and Norway recently defined their maritime border and the US and Russia have a maritime boundary agreement in place (in force as an executive agreement pending ratification in the Russian Duma). With repeated consultations and sharing of geological research, cooperation, not conflict, is the order of the day among the arctic coastal states.

    To repeat, the story is not impending conflict in the Arctic. The true story is the peaceful division of seabed and resources in accordance with international law.

  • Melissa Everett, Ph.D.

    Thanks for this shocking yet thoughtful analysis.  Humans are not great at pattern recognition, are we???

    I hope it is appropriate to share a just-published novel that projects a very similar story, in a scary yet recognizable 2016.  It's called Melting Down by Harvey Stone (The Way Things Are Press, 2011) - www.meltingdownnovel.com. Its science was vetted by Dr. Stephen Running of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and excerpts are readable on the book's website. I just met the author and am a fan...