Thu, Jun 25, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Rumors of a colder war

Climate change could open up the Arctic Ocean and other northern areas to disputes over resources, security and free passage

By Alister Doyle  /  REUTERS , OSLO

Arctic nations are promising to avoid new “Cold War” scrambles linked to climate change, but military activity is stirring in a polar region where a thaw may allow oil and gas exploration or new shipping routes.

The six nations around the Arctic Ocean are promising to cooperate on challenges such as overseeing possible new fishing grounds or shipping routes in an area that has been too remote, cold and dark to be of interest throughout recorded history.

But global warming is spurring long-irrelevant disputes, such as a Russian-Danish standoff over who owns the seabed under the North Pole, or how far Canada controls the Northwest Passage that the US calls an international waterway.

“It will be a new ocean in a critical strategic area,” said Lee Willett, head of the Marine Studies Programme at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London, predicting wide competition in the Arctic area.

“The main way to project influence and safeguard interests there will be use of naval forces,” he said.

Ground forces would have little to defend around remote coastlines backed by hundreds of kilometers of tundra.

Leading climate experts say the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free by 2050 in summer, perhaps even earlier, after ice shrank to a record low in September 2007 amid warming blamed by the UN Climate Panel on human burning of fossil fuels.

Previous forecasts had been that it would be ice-free in summers toward the end of the century.

Among signs of military concern, a Kremlin security document last month said Russia may face wars on its borders in the near future because of control over energy resources — from the Middle East to the Arctic.

Russia, which is reasserting itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union, last year sent a nuclear submarine across the Arctic under the ice to the Pacific. The new class of Russian submarine is called the Borei (Arctic Wind).

Canada runs a military exercise, Nanook, every year to reinforce sovereignty over its northern territories. Russia faces five NATO members — the US, Canada, Norway, Iceland and Denmark via Greenland — in the Arctic.

In February, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper criticized Russia’s “increasingly aggressive” actions after a bomber flew close to Canada before a visit by US President Barack Obama.

And last year Norway’s government decided to buy 48 Lockheed Martin F-35 jets at a cost of 18 billion crowns (US$2.81 billion), rating them better than rival Swedish Saab’s Gripen at tasks such as surveillance of the vast Arctic north.

Much may be at stake. The US Geological Survey estimated last year that the Arctic holds 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil — enough to supply current world demand for three years.

And Arctic shipping routes could be short cuts between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in summer even though uncertainties over factors such as icebergs, insurance costs or a need for hardened hulls are likely to put off many companies.

Other experts say nations can easily get along in the North.

“The Arctic area would be of interest in 50 or 100 years — not now,” said Lars Kullerud, president of the University of the Arctic. “It’s hype to talk of a Cold War.”

He said an area in dispute between Russia and Denmark at the North Pole was no bigger than a “gray zone” in the Barents Sea over which Russia and Norway have been at odds for decades and where seismic surveys indicate gas deposits in shallow waters.

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