Climate Change in the Arctic Brings Potential Conflict Between the U.S. and Russia


A major effort to transfer 1.3m gallons of fuel from a Russian tanker to Nome, Alaska, was finally completed on Thursday. The ice-bound city, located just south of the Arctic Circle, faced a major fuel shortage after missing its last pre-winter fuel delivery due to an unseasonably early fall blizzard.

The Russian tanker, the Renda, persevered through significant adversity to come to Nome’s rescue; along with the threat posed by intense winter ice, the tanker needed a waiver from the Secretary of Homeland Security to allow merchandise to be transported between points in the U.S. in a vessel other than one built and owned by the U.S. This was a requirement of the Jones Act.

Climate change in the Arctic is creating new international challenges that the U.S. must be prepared to meet, both through cooperation and preservation of our national interests.

In the city of Nome, Alaska, extreme weather in the Arctic Circle led to international cooperation; however, this may not always be the case. Significant polar ice cap melt is another weather extreme of the region, which creates newly accessible shipping lanes, as well as oil and gas resources. In 2004, an international team of scientists published the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA). The report found that over the past few decades, the average temperature in the Arctic has risen nearly twice as fast as the temperatures in the rest of the world and concluded that the summer polar ice cap could melt completely before the end of this century. A reduction in sea ice will likely increase access to the region’s precious natural resources, both expanding opportunities for international shipping as well as for offshore oil drilling. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 13% of the undiscovered oil and 30% of the undiscovered natural gas resides in the arctic.

These new opportunities bring international competition. For instance, Russia claims that an underwater mountain known as the Lomonosov Ridge is actually an extension of the Russian state. Artur Chilingarov, a famous Russian explorer, led the mission to plant a Russian flag in a capsule on the ocean seabed under the North Pole. "The Arctic is Russian," Chilingarov said. "We must prove the North Pole is an extension of the Russian coastal shelf."

At the moment, no particular nation’s shelf officially extends up to the North Pole. There is an international zone around the Pole that is managed by the International Seabed Authority based in Kingston, Jamaica.

In addition to the Russian claim, the U.S. and Canada dispute rights to the Northwest Passage. Canada is also clashing with Denmark over a small island off Greenland, and Denmark claims the North Pole as its own.

A recent Government Accountability Office report looks at U.S. preparation for operations in an Arctic with increasing human activity, and the potential for increasing international tensions. The report warns that although the Department of Defense has begun to assess the capabilities required to operate in this region, more is required, including developing a risk-based investment strategy and a timeline for developing Arctic capabilities and establishing a forum with the Coast Guard to identify collaborative Arctic capability investments. The GAO report’s findings must be taken seriously, but the model of cooperation in a changing Arctic landscape offered by the Renda should also not be ignored.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons