Global warming is an old adversary, but now melting ice in the Arctic is starting to cause a new headache for conservationists fighting to preserve a region that is uniquely important to global biodiversity. The reason is that as the ice clears, a new, shorter shipping route between Europe and Asia is opening up, dramatically reducing journey times and shipping costs. The melt is also set to make the area’s rich mineral reserves more available to the world. All of which could have a major impact on the environment and the thirty or more indigenous peoples who live there.
The increase in shipping passing through the region is steep. Two years ago, permission was granted for just four ships to sail the entire route between Europe and Asia via the Arctic. In 2012, this figure rose to 47 ships. In 2013, 204 ships are expected to gain permission, and by 2030 it is predicted that about one-third of all shipping between Asia and Europe will take this route. It is also expected that within the next five years, the route will be navigable for eight months a year. The Russians, followed by the Chinese, are showing the most interest in the new route. This makes sense as the Russian Arctic is already the most developed in the region in terms of tapping natural resources. The Americans, however, have warned of issues around national security and safe transit that will need to be addressed.
With an abundance of mineral wealth including oil, natural gas, nickel, copper, coal, gold, uranium, iron, tungsten and diamonds all set to become easier to exploit, the potential for conflict is obvious. The Arctic has no single government but the Arctic Council – an intergovernmental forum – works to promote co-operation between Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, the United States, and the indigenous peoples. A daunting task, especially when the voices of the environmentalists are added to the mix.