Last weekís decision by the Arctic Council, led by the eight nations with Arctic territory, to accept China, India, Japan and three other countries as new observers points to the regionís growing importance. Itís also a sharp reminder of the need for the United States, the councilís biggest player, to do more to prevent a destabilizing Great Game from unfolding at the top of the world.
Behind the Arcticís intensifying geopolitics are some powerful geophysics. Climate change is causing Arctic ice to melt at an accelerating rate. Last summer, the area of ice covering the Arctic Ocean was about half what it was, on average, from 1980 to 2000. The thickness of the remaining ice had diminished by 80 percent over the same period. The late-summer Arctic could regularly be ice-free as soon as the 2030s, according to some estimates.
Although these developments portend ominous changes in the jet stream, ocean currents and global climate, they also promise great opportunities. With less ice will come more access to oil and gas: The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2008 that the region holds 30 percent of the worldís undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil. Ice-free passage through the Northern Sea Route along Russiaís coast would let ships sailing between Europe and Asia reduce travel time by 40 percent, and trim voyage costs by 20 percent (not to mention cutting their carbon emissions). From 2010 to 2012, the vessels and cargo taking that route increased by a factor of 10. Moreover, shrinking ice coverage means that the 1.1 million square mile ďdonut holeĒ in the central Arctic Ocean ó an area not under any countryís jurisdiction ó will be partially accessible for commercial fishing.
Although the council isnít a formal rule-making organization, it has overseen binding agreements on search-and-rescue and oil spills. As a recent report to the council argues, high on its to-do list should be a mandatory polar code for freight vessels and cruise ships operating in Arctic waters, less than 10 percent of which are charted to international navigation standards.
U.S. leadership will be critical to achieving such goals ó and to ensuring a judicious balance between the interests of the Arctic Councilís permanent members, including its indigenous groups, and those of outside nations with a stake in the disposition of the regionís resources.
In 2015, the U.S. will take over from Canada as leader of the council. The best thing the U.S. could do to tamp down a struggle for Arctic resources would be to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention, as has every other council member. The council has agreed to use the convention to establish claims and arbitrate disagreements. The failure of the regionís biggest power to join undermines the conventionís effectiveness as a forum for the peaceful resolution of disputes. More practically, it means that the U.S. canít stake a legally defensible claim to resources extending as far as 600 miles from the north coast of Alaska.