When the United States assumed chairmanship of the Arctic Council last month, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the U.S. government’s priority would be to manage the impact of global climate change on the region in cooperation with the other countries that have a major presence in the Arctic. Climate change is certainly an important issue, and one that is having a greater impact in the Arctic than in any other region. But as U.S. officials are aware, the tensions between the United States and Russia could impede their bilateral cooperation on this and other Arctic-related issues.
Climate change is changing the Arctic environment in ways that will increase the region’s importance to the great powers. The increase in average global temperatures is causing the polar ice caps in the Arctic to melt, making it easier for ships to carry goods and people through the region. Two major trans-Arctic shipping routes are currently traversable: the Northwest Passage, linking Northeast Asia to Northeast North America via the Canadian Arctic Isles, and the Northern Sea Route, connecting East Asia to Northern Europe via Russia’s Arctic coast. As more ice melts, the seasonal window in which both these routes are viable will lengthen.
The shrinking ice is also facilitating access to the Arctic’s natural resources, from fish to undersea oil and gas deposits. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the region’s undiscovered conventional oil and gas resources at approximately 90 billion barrels of oil, 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. Russia’s Natural Resources Ministry has stated that the parts of the Arctic Ocean claimed by Russia may hold more oil and gas deposits than Saudi Arabia. The Russian Federation already has the world’s longest Arctic border at over 10,850 miles. It also possesses several Arctic archipelagoes, including Franz Josef Land and Wrangel Island.