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Geopolitics of a ’melting’ North

The circumpolar North, or the Arctic, politically includes eight unified states, the so-called Arctic Eight, two autonomous regions and an archipelago under the auspices of an international agreement, i.e. Canada, Denmark (meaning Greenland and the Faroes), Finland, Iceland, Norway (including Svalbard), the Russian Federation, Sweden and the USA (meaning Alaska). Thus, the region is legally and (geo)politically divided by the national borders of eight unified states.

The circumpolar North of the beginning of the 21st century is a stable and peaceful region without wars and armed conflicts. This is not, however, a given but is, due rather, to the existence of a level of political will and agreement based on significant international and inter-regional cooperation both within and pertaining to the region. Further more, within the region a number of innovative political and legal arrangements have been developed, while a certain devolution of power has also taken place, based on the human capital store of educated and skilful peoples.

In the northernmost regions of the Arctic states there are many built settlements and towns but also major cities such as Murmansk and Norilsk in Russia, Anchorage in Alaska and Reykjavik in Iceland, where a large part of the Arctic population lives.

Although ever larger numbers of tourists now visit these northern regions, the number of inhabitants is slowly decreasing in most parts of the circumpolar North, except in Alaska, Northern Canada and Iceland.

In basic economic terms the Arctic primarily remains a peripheral region with a rather low per capita gross product (15127$ US-PPP in 2001). In the back-ground there is on the one hand, some recognition of the politico-cultural legacy of state colonialism in the northern peripheries, and on the other, a firm residue of 'national interest' in the eight Arctic states' northern policies.

The circumpolar North has however witnessed significant growth in its geostrategic importance for various military and security-political reasons. The reason is that these sparsely-populated northern peripheries are both strategically and politically suitable for the support of a military presence and for activities such as the patrolling of strategic nuclear submarines in the Arctic Ocean; deployment of radar stations and missile silos such as the US radar station in Thule, Greenland as a part of the US National Missile Defence system; and the testing of weapons, military applications and military training such as low-level flights in Goose Bay, Canada and artillery shooting in Lakselv, Norway and Rovajärvi, Finland.

This elevated level of strategic importance is due in the main to the existence of rich untapped stocks of natural resources such as fish metallic minerals and oil and natural gas. There are also other kinds of natural resources such as e.g. timber which is harvested in Russia, Finland and Sweden; alternative energy such as geo- and thermo- energy, mostly in Iceland; and resources of immaterial value such as the beauty of nature which attracts mass tourism to many parts of the region.

Based on the Arctic Human Development Report most of the gross production of the circumpolar North, some $230 billion (in 2001), for the region of four million people (in 2003), was based, predominantly, on the large-scale exploitation of natural resources such as precious metals and hydrocarbons serving the energy needs of the northern developed countries.

Most of the gross production came from Russia (67%), which is not surprising as Russia's rich oil and natural gas resources are generally located in her Northern regions.

The second largest gross production total was in Alaska (12.4%). Correspondingly, the gross production of Northern Norway, Northern Sweden and Northern Finland was almost equal (between 4.4-5.3% each) with that of the whole of Iceland being a little lower (3.5%).

The lowest shares were in Northern Canada (1.9%) and Greenland and the Faroe Islands (between 0.4-0.5% each). According to per capita statistics Alaska has the highest figure (45107$ US-PPP) with a population of 650 000, and Northern Canada the second highest (39 915$ US-PPP) with a much lower population of 130 000.

The northernmost regions of the Nordic countries have close to the average figure, except Iceland which remains a little higher, with a total number of 1.3 mil-lion inhabitants. Finally the Russian North has the lowest figure (12 327$ US-PPP) while also having the largest Arctic population, i.e. almost two million people.

The fact that the northern regions have been taken into the globalized world economy has seen increasing utilization of their energy potentials and a greater flow of raw materials out of the region. Indeed, estimates exist claiming that 20-25% of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas resources could be 'hidden' in the shelf of the Arctic Ocean.

All of this speculation however merely emphasizes the growing economic importance of energy security. In the short-term the successful countries here are the USA (Alaska), and Russia, (particularly Yamalo-Nenets Okrug), and Iceland.

In the longer-term all of the coastal and rim-land states of the Arctic Ocean could benefit due to the existence of a rich seam of discovered and undiscovered hydro-carbons in their northern regions, mostly on the continental shelves. These areas include Alaska, Yamalo-Nenets Okrug, North Norway and beyond the Arctic Ocean coastal states Iceland may also have a good chance of success.

Based on this overview it is possible to estimate that there will be (very) good market developments for northern energy resources, especially when the prize of crude oil in the world market is at present between 90 and 100$ a barrel.

A similarly, healthy situation can also be forecast for precious metals such as gold and diamonds. Additionally, in the field of tourism, which continues to grow, market development can be seen to be positive, at least in so far as the northern regions retain snow, darkness, the feeling of emptiness as well as good connections a modern infrastructure and convenient accommodation. This is already the case particularly in Iceland, Finnish Lapland and Alaska.

In the circumpolar North many kinds of global problems and globalization flows are detectable. Examples include the impact of long-range air travel, water pollution and general climate change. Also the flows of raw materials, labour, capital and information via foreign tourists influence the northern regions.
Finally, we have many multi-functional impacts of climate change such as the weather, warming and melting of sea ice and glaciers. Climate change entails, for the Arctic North, a sort of dualism as the rapid warming of the climate makes new sea transportation routes possible while also creating major challenges and posing major risks to communities forcing them either to adapt or to become environ-mental refugees.

Climate change has challenged the security of many of these settlements due to rapid melting of the ice, glaciers and permafrost. This remains a real problem in respect of many coastal settlements due to erosion in the short-term and to rising sea levels in the longer term. Many towns in the Russian North face degradation of the building stock constructed on a now melting permafrost. In addition, the drilling and transportation of crude oil in cold, icy waters is per se very challenging due to the fragile nature of the arctic environment.

All this means that there is a need for accident prevention in the context of oil and gas drilling and sea transportation, especially in the Barents Sea region, where new oil and gas fields have been, or soon will be, put into production. Moreover, there is also an urgent need for either mitigation, which might come too late, or adaptation, including the devel-opment of new kinds of environ-mental technologies.

This can be done based on so-called 'cold climate' technology, which has been successfully developed in Alaska, Finland and Sweden, but more as some sort of arctic "risk technology".

The big question however remains, namely, whether climate change will mean either a real change in the problem definition of security towards com-prehensive and human security, which was one of the new innovations of Canada's northern, foreign policy, or merely an increase in national control and defence in these northern regions.

Following on from all this, it is no wonder that the circumpolar North has become a target area for the growing economic, political and military interests of both the regional states and actors from outside the region, meaning on the one hand, major and growing powers such as Japan and China, and on the other, new international actors such as trans-national corporations and international environ-mental non-governmental organizations.

One result of all of these factors and dynamics is that in these northernmost regions of the globe a significant and rapid level of environmental, geo-economic and geopolitical change occurring which retains a keen security dimension. As a part of this change there is now growing worldwide interest in the circumpolar North. Moreover, the region undoubtedly also has some positive contributions to make to the study of world politics more generally.

In addition to this growing geo-strategic importance, and based on the fact that the region is stable and peaceful, a number of positive developments have emerged, and are continuing to emerge. Among these are that the North has become a "workshop" for (multidisciplinary) res-earch such as for example, that on climate change and its impacts; second, that the diversity of both northern nature and that of northern cultures is remarkable; and third, that there are some successful stories to be told such as those on innovative political and legal arrange-ments based on the devolution of power across this region. It is thus possible to claim that such developments make the region an interesting and relevant area in terms of the study of world politics.

In sum this entails the undoubted em-ergence of new kinds of challenges in the near future. Examples include the question of wheter governments are ready to really discuss the critical "real" issues such as mass utilization of those hitherto untapped natural resource endowments of the region, energy security, and existing disputes and claims, in the context of institutionalized international cooperation such as the Arctic Council, or whether this will only happen in a bilateral context, or perhaps within NATO, or even in some other ad-hoc based arrange-ment.

By Dr. Lassi Heininen -

Bogoyavlenskiy, D. & Siggner A. (2004): "Arctic Demography", in AHDR (Arctic Human Development Report) 2004. Akureyri, Stefansson Arctic Institute, 27-41

Duhaime, G. (2004): "Economic Systems", in AHDR (Arctic Human Development Report) 2004. Akureyri, Stefansson Arctic Institute, 69-84.

Heininen, L. (2007): "Geopolitics and geoeconomics of a 'melting' North". A Presentation at Felagsvisindatorg of University of Akureyri, Iceland, 3rd of October 2007.

Heininen, L. (2005): "Impacts of Globalization, and the Circumpolar North in World Politics", Polar Geography, Vol. 29, No. 2 (April-June): 91-102. Issue: Challenges of Globalization for the North.