• Nawal Ali

A Modern Day Gold Rush: The Changing Geopolitics of the Arctic


The Arctic region is becoming most affected regions in the world as the phenomenon of climate change causes major ecological and environmental changes due to rising global temperatures. The region is experiencing temperatures twice the global average which has led to glacier ice retreating, land thawing, and the second-lowest minimum extent of sea ice recorded in the Arctic in 2019. These major environmental changes are setting off a modern-day gold rush in the region as the warming Arctic is leading to attempts at exploitation of the Arctic natural resources and opening of new trade routes. Furthermore, important geopolitical developments are occurring as major actors like Russia and China are increasing their presence in the region.

One of the biggest reasons for the increased attention and flurry of activity that is ongoing in the region is the major reserves of natural resources in the Arctic that are becoming increasingly economically viable to extract due to climate change. Fifteen percent of global untapped petroleum reserves and 30 percent of natural gas deposits are found in the Arctic sea. Other resource deposits that can be developed as the Arctic heats up are reserves of copper, nickel, uranium, and other valuable commodities. Already companies are seeking to invest and develop projects to take advantage of these opportunities. In 2012, the Nunavut Resources Corporation sought $18 million for mining projects to develop reserves of lithium, gold, platinum, and diamonds in Canadian Arctic territory. Greenland already has two mines for extracting anorthosite and ruby, as well as currently developing mines for extracting zinc and rare earth metals.

In addition to opportunities for natural resource exploitation, another reason for the increased attention and activity in the Arctic has been the opportunities for new trade routes due to the declining ice in the region has made it easier to travel and transport cargo in the Arctic. It is expected that by the mid-century, shipping companies can take advantage of a potential trans-polar passage route that can cut straight across the North Pole. In addition to future possibilities, a warming Arctic is seeing growing shipping volumes in the present, as 9.7 million tons of cargo were shipped through the Northern Sea Route and future shipping volumes are projected to increase to 80 million by the year 2024. Furthermore, a key point of tension in the Arctic conflict is the debate over who has sovereignty over these trade routes. Canada claims to control the Northwest Passage under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (U.N.C.L.O.S.) while the U.S. and other countries argue that it is under international waters. If Canada puts a toll that passage, it could cause problems.

As the Arctic region continues to experience warming temperatures, geopolitical developments are occurring as great powers such as Russia and China are increasingly viewing the Arctic as strategically important and are seeking to take advantage of the new resource and trade opportunities brought about by climate change. Russia has been aggressive in expanding its presence in the Arctic where since 2013 Russia has built and upgraded 7 of its Arctic military bases, as well as deployed advanced radar and missile defense systems which are capable of hitting aircraft, missiles and ships to Russian arctic military sites leading to Russia having the capability to project power along its arctic coastline and adjacent areas. In terms of its economic presence, Russia, which already mans the best icebreaker fleet in the world by a long stretch, has invested nearly $300 billion in Arctic infrastructure projects which have consisted of building seaports along the Russian arctic coastline, development of petroleum fields, and the increased deployment of nuclear-powered icebreakers to expand Russian economic influence in the region.

China has also sought to expand its presence in the Arctic despite not being geographically near the Arctic region. China has sought to classify itself as a “near-arctic state,” extended Belt and Road Initiative projects to the Arctic under the “Polar Silk Road” initiative, and secured permanent observer status to the Arctic Council in 2013 as part of China’s goal to enhance its influence in the Arctic. China has also pursued major economic investments in the Arctic nations such as energy projects with Russia, resource exploration in Greenland, building telecommunications infrastructure in Finland, and signing a free trade agreement with Iceland. China has also sought to construct and deploy nuclear-powered icebreakers to increase Chinese access to Arctic sources of energy and the new shipping routes.

As climate change continues to occur, the Arctic will continue to go through its environmental transformation. This environmental transformation has led to the Arctic’s reserves of natural resources to become economically viable for exploitation as well as allowing for new maritime trade routes to open which has led to a major increase in economic activity in the region. The continued melting of the arctic and the economic opportunities that can now be accessed because of it have led to geopolitical actors like Russia and China to increase their presence in their region through both military and economic investments. These trends will continue to increase in intensity in the future.

Nawal Ali is a second-year International Relations major in the School of International Service. He is Deputy Editor for Foreign Affairs for the Agora.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

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