Trouble in the Arctic?

Source: CNBC

Source: CNBC

The Arctic, a region that proved elusive to explorers for centuries, is now more important than ever. As ice thaws and the Arctic warms at a rate twice that of the global average,[1] international interest and attention in the region has piqued. The combination of natural resources, potential new trade routes, and strategic interests holds the possibility of shifting international dynamics, for better or worse.

Though relations in the region have been peaceful thus far, the prospect of resource and territorial disputes could turn contentious. In order to avoid conflict in the Arctic, the international community must continue to work as a whole, reaffirming the conventions and treaties that have been largely responsible for facilitation of peace in the region thus far. However, even if the Arctic remains emblematic of accord and international cooperation, continued development of the region may still serve to perpetuate power discrepancies worldwide, as nations with deep pockets buy influence.

This paper will address the increasing importance of the Arctic, beginning with the history of exploration and the role of climate change in current exploration. It will then outline the various international doctrines and agencies responsible for establishing guidelines concerning Arctic governance. Next, primary motivations for exploration will be outlined. These include the presence of natural resources, improved trading opportunities, and advanced strategic interests. The paper will consider the various implications that could result from increased Arctic development, both good and bad. It concludes by presenting policy considerations, arguing for the creation of oversight bodies and inclusive platforms for discussion.

I. The Arctic in Context

A. Historical Background

The Arctic has an extensive exploratory past. By the 16th century, European exploration of the region was well underway.[2] Finding a Northwest Passage that could allow for more efficient trade between Europe and Asia was the driving force behind Arctic exploration.[3] Though expeditions through the Arctic proved dangerous, exploration persisted.[4] By the end of the 19th century, as a result of this continued exploration and warming temperatures, the Northwest Passage was revealed.[5] As polar ice continues to melt, the Northwest Passage and the Arctic itself have become increasingly accessible.

B. The Role of Climate Change

Since 1979, the length of the melt season for Arctic sea ice has grown by 37 days, with ice now beginning to melt 11 days earlier and refreezing 26 days later than it used to, on average.[6] In August 2012, sea ice extent[7] reached its lowest level since satellite observations began in 1979.[8] It is estimated that within the next 25 years, the Arctic will have iceless summers.[9] As the ice continues to thaw at an accelerated rate, access to new trading routes, fishing grounds, and significant deposits of oil, gas, and minerals will become available. The irony of this is that climate change has played an integral role in opening the Arctic up for business opportunities capable of furthering climate change.

II. International Law and the Arctic

Currently, various international conventions and councils determine the ways in which countries interact with one another and the Arctic. The Arctic Council is the preeminent intergovernmental forum used to address Arctic issues.[10] The council is consensus-based and addresses issues pertaining to sustainable development, the environment, and scientific cooperation in the Arctic Region.[11] It is comprised of 14 members who possess Arctic territory: Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway, the U.S., Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and six permanent groups that represent the indigenous peoples of the Arctic.[12] States and entities that lack Arctic territory but have interests in the region are able to gain a limited observer status within the council.[13]

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is also important in providing a framework for Arctic relations.[14] UNCLOS is an international agreement, which 167 parties have signed onto.[15] It establishes guidelines and a “legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out.”[16] While the U.S. recognizes UNCLOS as customary international law, it is not a party to the convention.[17]

In addition to the Arctic Council and UNCLOS, there are various other sources that contribute to the framework of governance in the Arctic Region, including the Svalbard Treaty, the North Atlantic Coastguard Forum, and the Conference of the Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region.[18] Each addresses maritime relations or the development of the Arctic more specifically.[19]

III. Why is Exploring the Arctic So Important?

A. Natural Resources

The abundance of natural resources is a primary factor contributing to increased international interest in the region. It is estimated that as much as 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil is located in the Arctic Circle.[20] UNCLOS gives members exclusive rights to natural resources found within 200 miles of their coastlines.[21] If a country wishes to make any additional claims that fall outside of this 200-mile demarcation, they must prove the seabed is physically connected to their country, thereby ensuring that the only nations able to extract Arctic resources are those who possess Arctic territory.[22] In this way, UNCLOS plays a role in limiting potential resource exploitation. However, because UNCLOS grants exclusive rights to the member states, member states are fairly unrestricted in the ways they can develop their Arctic territory, potentially creating room for harmful environmental practices. Many Arctic countries have begun planning initiatives relating to natural resource exploration, and Russia leads with the proposal of nearly 250 potential Arctic projects.[23]

Although non-Arctic countries are prevented from physically claiming territory in the region, countries with deep pockets and ambition can assert influence in other ways. China’s ambition is being pursued in exactly this way, as the nation finances Arctic scientific research, projects, and negotiating free-trade agreements with Arctic countries.[24] The problem is that much of the world lacks the capital to fund Arctic development in the way China has begun to. This prevents many nations from asserting any influence in the region, despite the ways in which such development will impact the global environment and economy.

B. New Trade Routes

The prospect of shorter shipping routes is key to understanding the increase in Arctic interest, largely because of the effect such routes would have on global trade. The Arctic could provide faster and more direct routes between Asia, Europe, and America.[25] Three trading routes are key to this prospect: the Transpolar Sea Route, the Northwest Passage, and the Northern Sea Route.[26] While each of these routes is only accessible seasonally without the use of an icebreaker,[27] the rapidly changing climate in the Arctic means it is only a matter of time until the routes become viable for longer periods. Most recently, on January 26, 2018, China announced its intention to work cooperatively with other nations to develop shipping routes through the Arctic.[28] China vocalized the importance of ensuring that every country has rights to use the potential shipping routes.[29]

C. Strategic Positioning

A third reason for the increased interest in the region is the potential for utilizing Arctic terrain as a means of advancing strategic interests. As a result of escalating anxieties with Russia, Finland is currently considering joining NATO[30] and in 2017 Sweden reintroduced a military draft.[31] This increasing tension and the possibility that Russia could become surrounded by NATO member nations is one potential explanation for Russia’s involvement in Arctic activities. Russia is a unique state, possessing an Arctic border that spans a whopping 4,000 miles.[32] Russia could be playing defensive geopolitics in the Arctic, rather than offensive in an attempt to protect its borders. Likewise, U.S. Arctic strategy could be a prioritization of the same goals. In January 2017, Defense Secretary James Mattis described the Arctic as “key strategic terrain,” encouraging the development of a comprehensive strategy, especially in light of Russia’s increased activity in the region.[33]

IV. The Future of Arctic Impact on the Globe

The effect that Arctic development will have on the future of international relations is anything but clear. The multiple motivations for getting involved in the region contribute to a plentitude of potential outcomes.

A. The Good

The best-case scenario is that future relations in the Arctic remain emblematic of peaceful international cooperation, largely as they are now. The possibility of nations working together to further develop efficient Arctic trade routes could help facilitate unprecedented international partnership. This could help improve diplomatic relations and further the advancement of the global economy.

B. The Bad

The worst-case scenario is that Arctic development contributes to escalating global tensions. The fast-paced nature of today’s world leaves room for dramatic shifts in international relations to occur overnight. As countries assert territorial claims and extract natural resources, nations’ interests may run counter to each other. This type of contention has already presented itself. Take the Northwest Passage, for example. Canada claims the passage constitutes internal waters, while the U.S. asserts the water is an international strait.[34] Beyond just internal disputes, the amount of natural resources available in the Arctic region may lead to resource extraction that further denigrates the environment at the will of a small handful of countries. An increased volume of shipping through new passages and pipeline installation for oil extraction will increase the likelihood of accidents and spills.[35] The possibility for this outcome is only further exacerbated by the remoteness of the region, potentially preventing adequate monitoring of economic and geopolitical activity.

Perhaps most concerning is the fact that, even under the most optimal outcomes, conversations concerning the future of the Arctic center on only a few global players. Huge portions of the world will find themselves unable to participate or compete in this new emerging market. Lacking an authoritative voice in this debate, many nations will not have their interests adequately represented in a region that will certainly affect the world as a whole. In this way, the future of the Arctic will unavoidably contribute to even more obvious and detrimental global power imbalances. This limiting nature of the Arctic is a problem, as nations with Arctic territory and nations with big money are the only ones able to claim a stake in the region. In this way, the Arctic may play a crucial role in cementing harmful power dynamics, speaking loudly to the aphorism, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

C. What Now?

There is an opportunity to develop additional policy and law that address Arctic development and promotes positive outcomes for the global community. For one, Arctic Council members should explore the possibility of creating a watchdog body for the council, tasked with observing and monitoring action in the region in order to spot harmful activity. Additionally, the formation of such a body could play a beneficial role in facilitating constructive relationships and alleviating tensions among member states.

The international community should also work more purposefully at taking into consideration the voices and concerns of non-Arctic nations, lacking the ability to assert monetary or political influence in the region, yet likely to be impacted by Arctic development. One potential way of accomplishing this would be to work within the confines of UNCLOS by creating a separate committee represented by UNCLOS member states. This would provide a platform for discussion, where member states could express their concerns with Arctic development and articulate changes they would like to see. Because so many countries have signed onto UNCLOS, working within its constraints is an efficient way to have the voices of many nations heard and potentially propel future policy initiatives that are more reflective of all member states.

V. Conclusion

The Arctic is a dynamic region of critical importance. It has the potential to affect both the present and future of the globe, in positive and negative ways. The combination of regional exploration and climate change has culminated in the high stakes environment we see today—one where the prospect of abundant natural resources, more efficient trading routes, and the ability to advance strategic goals has piqued the interests of many. In continuing to develop the Arctic, measures should be taken to guarantee that the environment and international relations are supported. In order to ensure future international cooperation and inclusion of all concerned, the Arctic must be developed in strategic and tempered ways.

Payton Martinez is a Staff Editor with the Denver Journal of International Law & Policy, and a 1L at the Sturm College of Law.


[1] Tim Koivurova, The Dialectic of Understanding Progress in Arctic Governance, 22 Mich. St.  Int’l L. Rev. 1, 1-21 (2013).

[2] Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst., The Arctic: Exploration Timeline, Polar Discovery (2006),

[3] Id.

[4] Greg Miller, These Maps Show the Epic Quest for a Northwest Passage, Nat’l Geographic (Oct. 20, 2016),

[5] Id.

[6] Climate Change Indicators: Arctic Sea Ice, U.S. Env’t Prot. Agency (2016),

[7] See generally Nat’l Snow & Ice Data Center, (last visited Jan. 27, 2018) (defining extent as a measurement of the area of ocean where there is at least some sea ice).

[8] Nat’l Snow & Ice Data Center, (last visited Jan. 27, 2018)

[9] Eric Roston, How a Melting Arctic Changes Everything, Bloomberg (Dec. 29, 2017),

[10] Evan Bloom, Establishment of the Arctic Council, 93 Am. J. Int’l Law 712, 712 (1999),

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Joseph F.C. DiMento, Environmental Governance of the Arctic: Law, Effect, Now Implementation, 6 U.C. Irvine L. Rev. 23, 23-60 (2016).

[14] See generally U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, opened for signature Dec. 10, 1982, 1833 U.N.T.S. 397 (entered into force Nov. 16, 1994), available at

[15] The U.N., United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform – the United Nations, (last visited Jan. 27, 2018).

[16] Id.

[17] DiMento, supra note 13, at 33.

[18] Id. at 42.

[19] Id. at 42-44.

[20] Donald L. Gautier et al., Assessment of Undiscovered Oil and Gas in the Arctic, 324 Science 1175, 1175-79 (2009).

[21] Koivurova, supra note 1, at 11.

[22] Id.

[23] Roston, supra note 9.

[24] Id.

[25] China to Develop Arctic Shipping Routes Opened Up by Global Warming, BBC News (Jan. 26 2018), [hereinafter China to Develop Arctic].

[26] Shane C. Tayloe, Projecting Power In The Arctic: The Russian Scramble for Energy, Power, and Prestige In The High North, 8 Pepperdine Pol’y Rev. 1, 1-19 (2015).

[27] Id. at 8.

[28] China to Develop Arctic, supra note 25.

[29] Id.

[30] Reid Standish, Wary of Russia, Finns take another look at NATO, Politico (Oct. 30, 2017),

[31] Colin Dwyer, Sweden Brings Back the Draft, Alarmed by Russian Activities, NPR (Mar. 2, 2017),

[32] Tayloe, supra note 26 at 6.

[33] Paul Watson, A Melting Arctic Could Spark a New Cold War, Time (May 12, 2017)

[34]William Y. Kim, Global Warming Heats up the American-Canadian Relationship: Resolving the Status of the Northwest Passage under International Law, 38 Canada-U.S. L.J. 168 (2013).

[35] DiMento, supra note 13, at 26.

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