By Chase Bloch
Just a few decades ago the arctic was a region of the world with little political or economic interest. This lasted up until the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) sparked new territorial interests in the region beginning in 1996, when Norway became the first Arctic country to ratify the UNCLOS resolution. UNCLOS doctrine states that countries have 10 years following their ratification of the resolution to submit a claim to an extended continental shelf. If accepted, this would give the country exclusive rights to resources at and below the sea bottom. Given that most of these resources have been historically inaccessible due to seasonal ice coverage and the general complications that come with mining resources in below freezing temperatures, the territorial land claims in the Arctic have not been a top priority of the Arctic nations. However, with the rise in global average temperatures causing the melting of polar ice caps, the newfound access to resources, and the opening of more efficient trade routes has greatly increased the significance of the region and UNCLOS.
To put things further into perspective, ice coverage in the arctic between 1980 and 2015 has dropped from 7.83 million square kilometers to 4.63 million square kilometers respectively with the lowest measurement being 3.62 million square kilometers in 2012. Additionally, the region is estimated to hold up to 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas supplies. These two statistics alone greatly increase the stakes of territorial claims in the region and has directly led to territorial disputes.
These territorial disputes have not yet manifested into physical conflict, but are apparent in the Arctic nations official land claim submissions to the United Nations. Russia, who ratified UNCLOS in 1997, recently made a continental shelf claim of 1.2 million square kilometers of the Arctic sea-bed. This addition would extend 350 nautical miles (up to the north pole) from the shore of Russia, or 150 additional nautical miles on-top of the UNCLOS defined Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles from the shore. Canada, who ratified UNCLOS in 2003, submitted a continental shelf claim that includes the north pole. Denmark, who ratified UNCLOS in 2004, submitted a continental shelf claim that extends beyond the north pole and into the Russian continental shelf. The United States has not yet ratified UNCLOS, but nonetheless has found itself in a dispute with Canada over territory in the Beaufort Sea. This leaves Norway as being the only Arctic Nation who has not made controversial claims over territory in the Arctic.
No Arctic country, however, is innocent when it comes to another crucial dynamic of these climate change induced conflicts – militarization. Along with overall increased military presence in the arctic – including personnel, submarines, ice breakers, aircraft, military bases etc. – there has also been an increase in the frequency and magnitude of military practice operations. In 2013, in the High North, Russia reportedly conducted its largest military drill since the Soviet Union era. Canada has held the practice drill, Operation Nanook, in the north of the country every year since 2007, along with a few other operations in other parts of the country that are in the Arctic. In 2013, Norway conducted Exercise Cold Response, which has been dubbed one of the “largest Arctic maneuvers ever.”
It is possible that these military operations are just a flexing of muscles and a display of sovereignty, but at the very least this increased militarization makes a military conflict in the Arctic more likely than it has ever been. The stakes are only continuing to rise as the flux of ice coverage in the arctic circle diminishes every year. This discussion, therefore, shows how climate change and its effects are currently, and are likely to continue complicating the delicate chessboard that is international security.
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 The Emerging Arctic. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2016, from http://www.cfr.org/polar-regions/emerging-arctic/p32620#!/?cid=otr_marketing_use-arctic_Infoguide
 Isachenkov, V. (2015, August 04). Russia to UN: We are claiming 463,000 square miles of the Arctic. Retrieved October 15, 2016, from http://www.businessinsider.com/russia-to-un-we-are-claiming-463000-square-miles-of-the-arctic-2015-8
 Canada to claim north pole as its own. (2013, December 09). Retrieved October 15, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/10/canada-north-pole-claim
 Continental Shelf – submission to the Commission by the Kingdom of Denmark. (2015, November 2). Retrieved October 15, 2016, from http://www.un.org/depts/los/clcs_new/submissions_files/submission_dnk_76_2014.htm
 Diplomat, A. S. (n.d.). The Creeping Militarization of the Arctic. Retrieved October 15, 2016, from http://thediplomat.com/2013/10/the-creeping-militarization-of-the-arctic/2/