Shrinking Ice, Growing Problems: Why We Must Act Now to Solve Emerging Problems Posed by an Ice-Free Arctic

Author:Thomas C. Farrens
Position:J.D. Candidate, The University of Iowa College of Law, May 2010.

I. Introduction. II. Development Of The Issue: Global Warming And The Melting Of The Arctic. III. Environmental Concerns And The Unique Problems Facing The Arctic. A. The Dangers of Increased Resource Exploration. B. The Dangers of Increased Navigation. IV. Jurisdictional Problems Facing The Arctic. V. Historical Approaches To Solving Environmental And Territorial Disputes In The Arctic. A.... (see full summary)


I. Introduction

Scientists predict that the Arctic may be ice-free for the first time in recorded history by as early as 2013. 1 An ice-free Arctic will allow for increased resource exploitation and trade across the Arctic's waters. This will result in two separate but related problems. First, the increased value of the region due to commercial exploration and trade will prompt Arctic nations to rush to claim the region as their own. 2 Second, increased resource exploration and commercial navigation pose a great danger to the Arctic's fragile natural environment. 3

This Note argues that the current legal framework is unable to deal with the competing and complex problems that the Arctic now faces. As a necessary result, Arctic nations need to develop a multinational treaty to resolve these issues. The Arctic is facing a "tipping point," 4 which is why the region needs a new agreement sooner rather than later.

This Note describes the crisis facing the Arctic, analyzes the historical and current legal frameworks that govern the relevant aspects of Arctic law, and proposes a solution. When addressing any problem of this magnitude, a solution must be both effective and feasible. There is no sense in formulating an agreement that has no chance of passing in the legislatures or parliaments of the relevant Arctic nations. Likewise, enacting politically convenient but ineffective measures would be nothing more than a waste of time.

This Note does not claim to propose the sole solution to the Arctic's various problems. However, it seeks to help readers understand the nature of the problems arising in the Arctic and to move the discussion toward actual solutions to them. Governments must address these problems before industry destroys one of the last pristine environments on Earth. To address the problem of the Arctic's shrinking ice, government actors must come together and put international priorities above those of individual nations.

II. Development Of The Issue: Global Warming And The Melting Of The Arctic

The buildup of greenhouse gases over the past century continues to have a real impact on the global climate, particularly in the Arctic. Currently, the Arctic is melting at an alarming rate. The summer of 2007 was the first time in recorded history that an ice-free shipping lane opened between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. 5 Additionally, the ice cap covering the Arctic is now only half the size it was a half-century ago, 6 and an end to the melting does not seem in sight. Experts predict that the warming trend will continue into the foreseeable future, 7 exacerbating the current problems and creating problems that we may not yet fully understand. 8

Initially, the great concern over global warming seemed limited to the threat of flooding in coastal cities. 9 Concerned nations now realize that global warming has far greater effects than that threat. People in every corner of the globe are facing the threat of global warming. A 2003 Pentagon report stated, "[C]limate change and its follow-on effects pose a severe risk to political, economic, and social stability." 10 Farmers in the Midwest 11 and anglers in the Gulf Coast 12 alike face the threat posed by climate change.

The effects of climate change are far-reaching. However, the Arctic especially may be at risk. The warming occurring in the Arctic is happening at a much faster pace than in other regions of the world. 13

An ice-free Arctic has two important implications. First, it will expose vast regions of seabed that are rich in natural resources, making extraction of these resources possible. 14 In fact, geologists predict "one quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas resources lies in the Arctic." 15 Second, an ice- free Arctic will open previously impassable shipping lanes. 16 The most promising route, historically known as the "Northwest Passage," connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via water routes that run through the Canadian Arctic archipelago, which is located in the northernmost regions of the North American continent. 17 The passage would reduce the length of the voyage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by an astonishing 9000 kilometers (5592 miles). 18

In an attempt to capitalize on the incredible value of the newly ice-free ocean, several nations have claimed large portions of the Arctic. For example, Russia made headlines in 2007 when it claimed control over the North Pole by placing a Russian flag in the seabed. 19 Canada and Denmark have likewise made recent claims over parts of the Arctic. 20 The two nations are currently in a dispute over an uninhabited island because it may be a valuable launching point for future oil exploration. 21 Canada also has developed plans to build a military facility along the Northwest Passage in preparation for conflicts over the use of the passage, and Denmark has begun an expedition to map the Arctic seabed surrounding Greenland. 22 Conscious of what is at stake, the United States recently started mapping the seabed north of Alaska. 23 Presumably, the purpose of these expeditions is not only to discover where resources may be located, but also to find the outermost edge of the continental shelf extending from each nation's border. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ("UNCLOS"), a country has exclusive jurisdiction over any and all natural resources under its continental shelf. 24 Although determining the precise extent of the continental shelf may itself lead to debate, it is an important step for any country wanting to exert control over natural resources under the seabed. 25 In fact, many Arctic nations, pursuant to Article 76 of the UNCLOS, are preparing to submit requests to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to establish the outer limits of their continental shelves. 26 The Arctic is the only place on Earth where the borders of five nations converge at a single point on the map (the North Pole). 27 The unique nature of the geography assures that disputes will not end anytime soon absent an agreement by all parties. The rush to expedite resource exploitation and the strong desire to use the Northwest Passage creates additional challenges to finding a resolution to the environmental and territorial problems that the region faces.

III. Environmental Concerns And The Unique Problems Facing The Arctic

The ecosystem of the Arctic is more susceptible to pollution than other parts of the world. 28 There are several factors that contribute to the Arctic's vulnerability:

1) Low temperatures retard the decomposition of natural and manmade substances and the breakdown of pollutants;

2) Regeneration is a protracted process because of the short growing season;

3) Large concentrations of animals heighten vulnerability to catastrophes;

4) Marine areas are particularly important in the Arctic in comparison with other regions of the globe;

5) Climatic conditions are likely to produce a more pronounced carbon dioxide-induced warming trend in the Arctic than in temperate regions and are already leading to high concentrations of air pollutants that threaten vegetation as well as human and animal life; and

6) Severe weather and ice dynamics make environmental protection and cleanup extremely difficult. 29

The intricate interactions and complex food-webs within the Arctic ecosystem make these concerns even more pronounced. 30 Simply put, the Arctic ecosystem is "extremely complex." 31 The increased navigation and resource exploration that is likely to occur raises several important concerns. Though there are problems common to both resource exploration and navigation, this Note will discuss the challenges separately.

A. The Dangers of Increased Resource Exploration

The state of the Arctic will only become more vulnerable as more nations seek to extract oil and other natural resources from beneath the seabed. 32History indicates that increases in oil exploration correspond with increases in pollution from oil spills and other accidents. 33

Once companies discover and drill the oil, the concerns of transporting the oil southward pose even more problems. Building pipelines, roads, highways, and other infrastructure to get the resources to their final destination creates several problems. 34 First, the initial construction will be difficult due to the remoteness of the area and is likely to scar the environment. 35 Scientists predict that excessive infrastructure may affect the migratory habits of certain species, 36 as well as destroy any habitat that lies between the drilling location and the oil's final destination. 37 Furthermore, it is more difficult to build roads, pipelines, and other methods of distribution in the Arctic because destabilization of infrastructure will occur when the permafrost eventually melts. 38

The Exxon Valdez oil spill provides an illustrative case study of what can occur when an accident happens in the Arctic region. In the spring of 1989, an oil tanker leaving Valdez, Alaska changed its route to avoid ice that blocked the normal shipping passage. 39 While on the alternate route, the bottom of the ship made contact with the seabed, damaging eight of the ship's eleven oil-holding tanks. 40 Nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil subsequently spilled into the oceanic environment, affecting over 1100 miles of coastline 41and killing "250,000 seabirds, 2800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, and up to 22 killer whales." 42

The most significant aspect of the Exxon Valdez oil spill story, however, lies in the clean-up efforts. This spill exemplifies the nearly impossible conditions that impede clean-up efforts when an environmental disaster hits such a remote location. The clean-up effort began immediately and was enormous in scale. 43 As it turns out, the difficult task of cleaning millions of gallons of oil paled in comparison to the logistical problems that the clean-up team encountered. The most difficult task...

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