Bare New World
With the Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, its increasingly ice-free shipping lanes are inviting what's being called a "cold rush." The promise of valuable deposits of fossil fuels, iron, diamonds, gold, and uranium-and the coming ability to transport them by sea—has the circumpolar nations jockeying for territory. In 2007 a Russian submarine planted a flag on the seafloor beneath the North Pole, and Canada and Denmark are tussling over tiny Hans Island, which lies midway between Canada and Greenland.
In May, the United States dispatched an unusually high-level delegation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to the meeting of the Arctic Council in Nuuk, Greenland—preceded by a show of force a few weeks earlier when two nuclear-powered submarines were sent 150 miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Major mines already in operation include an open-pit diamond mine in Canada's Northwest Territories and gold mines in Canada, Greenland, and Siberia.
A huge iron mine (recently acquired by Lakshmi Mittal, the richest man in Britain) on Canada's Baffin Island could begin operations in 2016. "The estimated oil, natural gas, and strategic mineral reserves in the Arctic are staggering and of strategic economic importance," says Barry Zellen, research director of the Arctic Security Project at the Naval Postgraduate School.
Zellen, a self-described "Arctic optimist," sees the Arctic as a future crossroads of the world, full of amicable trade. But the strategic stakes have sharp elbows flying. Canada insists on its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, a claim the United States ignores. And last year Russia announced it would deploy two brigades of troops to the Arctic to "counter potential threats to its energy and mineral interests in the region."
Photo by Kelly Elliott NOAA/OAR/OER. The USCG Icebreaker HEALY cutting through ice sheets in the Arctic Ocean.