The Geographical Journal

Ice, Oil, and the New Geopolitics of the Arctic

By Martin Mahony
A US submarine surfaces through the ice near the North Pole

Scientists monitoring the extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean recently announced that a new record low had been set. In late August, a Guardian article reported that sea ice had retreated to 4.1 million square kilometres, breaking the previous record of 4.3m sq. km. It is widely accepted in the scientific community that that the downward trend is largely a result of human-induced climate change.

The melting of the Arctic ice has many potentially profound implications. Climate scientists warn that the disappearance of the bright white ice and its replacement by dark ocean will enhance heat absorption in the Arctic region. This would represent a ‘positive feedback’ on the currently observed warming trend. However, the disappearing ice also has a number of geopolitical implications which are catching the attention of geographers.

Political territories have historically been defined on land and water. Ice does not sit comfortably in our picture of neatly-bounded political spaces. Melting ice therefore has the potential to generate new claims to sovereign territory in its wake. The existence of bountiful oil and gas reserves in the Arctic means that territorial disputes may have profound economic and environmental implications. A recent Guardian article  reported a protest by the Climate Justice Collective outside Shell’s London headquarters. Environmental campaigners have become increasingly concerned about not just the potential local environmental impacts of oil extraction in the Arctic, but also about the continued drive for the same fossil fuel resources which are seen to be the cause of the observed changes in the region.

In a 2011 paper in The Geographical Journal, Leonhardt van Efferink explores how two US think-tanks approach the new geopolitics of the Arctic. On the one hand, the Arctic is seen as a sphere in which military conflict with Russia could ensue over claims to territory and resources. On the other, Russia is seen as being a potential partner in a multilateral diplomatic effort to ease tensions over the changing geographical landscape of the Arctic.

Van Efferink highlights the contribution that geographers can make to debates about the geopolitical future of the arctic.  He suggests that the conservative US think-tank the Heritage Foundation unhelpfully portrays the Arctic as a single entity which can be claimed by a ‘hostile’ power such as Russia. However, territorial disputes in the Arctic are not new, and are complicated by the changing configurations of land, water and ice. The continuing trends of receding ice, intensifying economic activity and the growth of new actors – such as the climate change protestors – seeking to influence and participate in debates suggests that the future of Arctic sovereignty will be anything but straightforward. Research such as van Efferink’s can help characterize and explain these complexities, while usefully flagging-up geopolitical simplifications like those of the Heritage Foundation. In a situation defined by change and new uncertainties, geographers are well placed to help make sense of the political and environmental challenges that lie ahead.

 Leonhardt A.S. van Efferink, 2012, ‘Polar partners or poles apart? On the discourses of two US think tanks on Russia’s presence in the ‘High North’‘, The Geographical Journal 178 3-8

 Arctic see ice shrinks to lowest extent ever recorded, The Guardian, 27 August 2012

Climate activists target Shell with ice protest over Arctic drilling, The Guardian, 11 September 2012

1 comment

  1. We should do something on the social issues; everybody should be responsible on the environment and lot of awareness should be done on the climatic change and the causes of pollution. But in the fast world now, everybody is ready to make money and not the lives of the future. I don’t think any government or even the UN is having some plans to overcome the environmental challenge.

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