The Arctic Circle: Earth's final frontier?


A sign reading, 'Gas!' in -40 degree Celcius temperatures in Novy Urengoi, just below the Arctic Circle in far northern Russia. Russian energy giant Gazprom opened its nearby Yuzhno-Russkoye gas field on December 18, 2007, which the company estimated to hold around one trillion cubic meters of natural gas.


Natalia Kolesnikova

MEDFORD, Massachusetts — The Arctic Circle is the next gold rush with eight nations holding territory in the melting tundra all vying to stake a claim to the bountiful resources that lie beneath the ice flows.

Or, the Arctic Circle is the next utopia, a global commons where mankind can work together to save the environment and the traditions of its indigenous people while responsible investors harvest resources the planet will need to survive.

Or, it is all of these things.

The truth is that the Arctic Circle is a tabula rasa, a place where political leaders, business investors, environmentalists, dreamers and schemers are all trying to assert their will and give shape to its uncertain future.

What is clear is that the Arctic Circle holds the world’s largest supply of untapped resources, particularly oil and gas, as well as rare minerals. Most economists agree it stands to become the last great emerging market in the global economy.

At an extraordinary conference this week at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Iceland’s President Olafur Grimsson gathered along with more than 50 leading diplomats, politicians, academics, environmentalists and business entrepreneurs to address the foreign policy, economic, environmental and security implications in the Arctic.

At the conference, titled “Voyage of Re-Discovery: Panning for Wealth in the Warming Arctic,” a general consensus emerged that the combination of a growing scarcity of resources combined with scientific breakthroughs for extracting them from the bottom of the icy waters and new pathways that are opening up due to climate change has put the Arctic at center stage in geopolitical conversation.

The conference seemed to focus most sharply on the need for a precise legal and political framework for the Arctic Circle to be established by the Arctic Council, which is made up of Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Finland.

The Council was established by the Ottawa Declaration of 1996. Last year Hillary Clinton attended the council meeting in Greenland, marking the first time a U.S. Secretary of State had taken part. But the U.S. does not have the same status on the council as the other seven nations because it has not yet ratified the UN’s Law of the Sea Treaty, which went into effect in 1994 with the signatures of 161 nations.

In a speech that opened the conference Sunday night, Sen. Kerry said the U.S. government needed to make the Arctic a policy priority and vowed to push in that direction as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The key issue is whether the Senate would hold a full vote on the Law of the Sea Treaty and thereby clear the way for President Obama to engage more actively and assert greater U.S. diplomatic influence in the Arctic Council as a member of the secretariat.

Pontus Melander, Minister-Counselor of the Embassy of Sweden to the United States who is actively involved in Sweden’s role in the Arctic Council, said, “Rather than talking about a fight or a race for resources, we should be talking about cooperation … and focusing on the process of finalizing the legal framework for the secretariat.”

Iceland’s President Grimsson, who has been active on establishing global forums for the issue of climate change, also addressed the gathering, saying that the geopolitical questions surrounding the Arctic have provided a unique opportunity for diplomatic cooperation among nations as they pursued shared goals.

He said many advancements have been made quietly while the Arctic has not been in the spotlight and that as business and national interests intensify, there is a need to establish a solid framework for decision making in the Arctic Council. He also stressed that the role of approximately 4 million indigenous people in the process has not been sufficiently addressed.

“How do we treat the rights of the indigenous people? This has been a taboo subject in the debate. Our states have come into this territory and started to dictate to these people … We don’t like to look into the mirror, but we need to,” Grimsson said.

Mead Treadwell, the Republican lieutenant governor of Alaska who was previously appointed to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission by President George W. Bush, said that the questions surrounding the Arctic Circle were a questions “not of conflict among nations, but of city versus country.”

Environmental lobbies and political bodies such as the European Union have been too quick, Treadwell said, to put forward laws and regulations that restrict hunting and fishing. He also called for much greater clarity on the control of shipping lanes and measures to prevent against oil spills.

“Whatever policy you are thinking about, ask the locals. They need to have a voice,” said Treadwell.

“We all have a shared interest in getting this right,” he said.