Seeking to avoid a polar free-for-all in one of the planet’s last untapped economic frontiers, representatives from more than three dozen nations will gather in Reykjavik, Iceland, starting Saturday to try to set some rules for tapping the natural resources and navigating new shipping lanes opening in the Arctic.
Reflecting the intense interest in the frozen north’s economic potential, the inaugural gathering of the Arctic Council Assembly has attracted delegates not only from the United States, Canada, Russia and other border nations, but from countries as far as way as China, Brazil and Pakistan.
Alice Rogoff, publisher of the Alaska Dispatch and a member of the new assembly’s advisory panel, said she expects the Arctic to become an economic powerhouse in the coming years, comparing its potential to China’s economic growth since 1980.
The Arctic is “going from very little, virtually nothing in terms of the world’s large capital flows, to what will become the dominant region of the Earth within 50 years,” she said.
Globalization, economic development, energy exploration, environment protection and international security are the driving forces of the assembly and could be the source of fierce policy disputes in the next several years. Some smaller powers say they don’t want to get trampled in the rush as the major powers stake their claims.
“The guiding spirit of the Arctic Council is [that] we don’t want this to be a race for resources. On the contrary, the model of the Wild West has been refuted” by the nations bordering the Arctic, Iceland President Olafur Grimsson said earlier this year.
“The U.S. could be more engaged and could be more involved,” Mr. Grimsson said. “The Arctic is America’s backyard. It is one of the most resource-rich areas in the world. If America wants to continue to be a big economy in the 21st century, American companies and the American economy need to have a strong Arctic” plan.
Organizers say that more than 900 people from 40 countries will take part in the talks, which run from Friday through Sunday. Among the Americans scheduled to take part are Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican; Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat; and Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott, with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore addressing the gathering by video message.
The United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden — the eight countries through which the Arctic Circle passes — have staked claims on the territory, which has become more accessible in the past seven years as global temperatures have risen and long-frozen sea lanes have thawed.
In 2012, the Arctic lost more sea ice than had ever been recorded. Since 1980, the Arctic has lost approximately 40 percent of its sea ice cover, according to NASA glaciologist Walt Meier.
One upshot from the receding ice is the opening of the Northeast Passage, a shipping lane connecting South Korea to northwest Russia. With up to four ice-reduced months during summer, shipping companies hope more cargo that once had to navigate the Suez Canal can be shipped along this route.
Ship transit through the Bering Strait, the gateway from the North Pacific Ocean to the Arctic, more than doubled from 2008 to 2012, according to the National Geographic.
Ms. Rogoff noted that the new route going over the North Pole reduces the average Europe-to-Asia shipping times by 45 percent.
“With the melting of the Arctic sea ice we are already seeing a new northern sea route shortening the distance between Asia and the U.S. and Asia and Europe. That’s why we are already having discussions about new harbors and new shipping lines,” Mr. Grimsson said. The possible revolution in global shipping patterns is one key reason China, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore and Brazil have sought a seat at the table as the Arctic opens up to development.
Polar scientists believe 20 percent to 25 percent of the undiscovered oil and natural gas in the world is in the Arctic region. In addition to the oil, natural gas and rare minerals, the Arctic holds rich fishing regions and potential new clean-energy sources.
Ms. Rogoff would like to see an Arctic port built near the city of Nome, Alaska, to boost the state’s economy and ease the state’s reliance on income from oil. She wants to see Alaska take part in developing clean energy for the U.S., but the federal government will have to lend its support for this to occur.
“The state of Alaska is based on an oil economy and it needs to diversify. It will do so in the coming decades, but having an Arctic port located near Nome will allow that diversification to happen much faster,” she said.
Organizers say they are urging the United States to close the gap with more activist countries showing interest in the development of the Arctic Circle.
“What will happen in the Arctic will not only affect America’s [military] strategic position, but also determine America’s economic position,” Mr. Grimsson said.