Is the Arctic Headed for Another Cold War?

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Arctic security wonks are gathering in Cambridge this week for a workshop on the challenges ahead for environmental security in the Arctic. Sound familiar? It should: When Russia planted a flag on a seabed in Russia’s Arctic waters in the summer of 2007, the specter of a circumpolar military race hung over the globe as other nations with Arctic borders, including the U.S., scrambled to chart out their claims and, by doing so, secure rights to tap into valuable natural resources and sea routes being exposed by melting sea ice.

That has flurry faded over the course of the past three years, and as Simon Shuster wrote on last week, Russia has recently taken a mellower stance promoting peace at the top o’ the world. But as the private sector’s ability to access Arctic oil and gas has come more clearly into focus this summer, Nato is concerned. As Europe’s Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. Admiral James G. Stavridis was quoted in the Guardian:

For now, the disputes in the north have been dealt with peacefully, but climate change could alter the equilibrium over the coming years in the race of temptation for exploitation of more readily accessible natural resources… The cascading interests and broad implications stemming from the effects of climate change should cause today’s global leaders to take stock, and unify their efforts to ensure the Arctic remains a zone of co-operation — rather than proceed down the icy slope towards a zone of competition, or worse a zone of conflict.

For now, resource extraction in waters that are newly inaccessible in warming temperatures is still in early days. Last month, Edinburgh-based Cairn Energy announced that it had found oil in the two wells it has been drilling off Greenland’s coast this week. How much and what kind of oil is unclear, but it’s promising (or alarming, depending on your take) for several energy companies that have exploratory licenses in Greenland waters.

Included on the agenda of the Nato conference, which is being held from Oct. 13-15 at the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute, are topics ranging from the state of the polar ice cap (soupy) to international law governing arctic waters (murky). And in case you think it all sounds like a big polar snooze, it may interest you to know there is also an “icebreaker” reception on the schedule. Who says Arctic security isn’t fun!