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Why does everyone seem to want a piece of the Arctic?

PortandTerminal.com, May 6, 2019

It seems lately that everyone wants a piece of the Arctic. Why? We’ll break it down in this article. Before we do though, let’s take a closer look at the Arctic. How big is it and who owns it?

How big is the Arctic?

The map above says it all but in case that’s not enough here are some stats:

  • The Arctic is 14.5 million square km (5.5 million square miles)—almost exactly the same size as Antarctica.
  • Its boundary is irregular and is often defined by either the northern limit of stands of trees on land or by where the ice is in mid-July.
  • It’s not all ice though. Parts of the Arctic are covered in lush tundra. These areas have large mammals, such as caribou, bears, wolves and foxes, and a variety of plants.

Who owns the Arctic?

Eight countries already own a slice of the Arctic and there’s a rush on to ensure that claims to it are protected and enforced.

All land, internal waters, territorial seas and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the Arctic are under the jurisdiction of one of the eight Arctic coastal states: Canada, Norway, Russia, Denmark (via Greenland), Iceland, Sweden, Finland and the United States. International law regulates this area as with other portions of the Earth.

“There’s a long queue of other players—starting with China, India, South Korea, Singapore, Germany and France and others who want a piece of the action and want to sit at the table,” Iceland’s former Prime Minister Ólafur Grímsson said. “And they are coming with a basket of investment finance.”

Why does everyone want a piece of the Arctic?

Countries are in a rush to enforce their claim on the Arctic for two main reasons: 1) Arctic resources and 2) Arctic trade routes.

Arctic resources

It is estimated that one-fifth of the world’s petroleum reserves lie in the Arctic

With an area larger than the United States it should come as no surprise that the Arctic contains a bounty of untapped natural resources. The main prizes in the Arctic resource race are Oil, Minerals and Fish.

  • Oil – It is estimated that one-fifth of the world’s petroleum reserves lie in the Arctic.
  • Minerals – There are vast deposits of coal, diamonds, uranium, phosphate, nickel, platinum and other precious minerals in the Arctic.
  • Fish – The Arctic is likely to become more attractive to commercial fishing fleets in future years, as climate change is causing major fish stocks including cod and halibut to move further north as lower latitudes warm, and overfishing in traditional grounds makes potential new areas appealing.

Arctic trade routes

In 2014 the Nunavik became the first cargo ship to go through the Northwest Passage without an ice-breaking escort ship leading the way (Photo Annika Ogilvie, FEDNAV)

According to some estimates, Arctic ice is retreating to the extent that the Northwest Passage could soon become an economically viable shipping route.

For the first time in human history we will witness the creation of a new ocean

Ólafur Grímsson, President Iceland (1996-2016)

For shipping firms transporting goods from China or Japan to Europe or the east coast of the US, the passage would cut thousands of miles off journeys that currently go via the Panama or Suez canals.

In 2014 the Nunavik became the first cargo ship to go through the Northwest Passage without an ice-breaking escort ship leading the way.

More recently, in August 2018 Maersk sent its 3,600 TEU container ship Venta Maersk, one of the world’s largest ice-class vessels, through the Arctic laden with cargo destined for St Petersburg in Russia.

And perhaps most worryingly of all for the China hawks in the room, China has revealed ambitions to create a “Polar Silk Road” by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming and encouraging enterprises to build infrastructure in the Arctic.

The race is clearly on.

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