International Competition is Heating Up in the Arctic. These Norwegian Islands Show How It Can Be Managed.

Ice melts near Nordenskjodbreen glacier on the Svalbard archipelago.Maja Hitij/Getty Images

About the author: Mark Piesing is the author of N-4 Down: The Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia.

In the Arctic, the temperature is not the only thing that is heating up. Political tensions are rising, with squabbles over sea lanes, oil and gas resources, and ownership of millions of square miles of land.

Read my comment piece for Barron’s in full below, or the original by following this link.

In the Arctic, the temperature is not the only thing that is heating up. Political tensions are rising, with squabbles over sea lanes, oil and gas resources, and ownership of millions of square miles of land.

Great powers have clashed over the Arctic before, reaching a peaceful resolution after the end of World War I. This was the 1920 Svalbard Treaty: one of the few parts of the Versailles settlement that have survived the conflicts of the 20th century.

There is still something of the frontier about Svalbard. The Norwegian archipelago, 500 miles from the North Pole, is covered by snow and ice and dominated by gleaming white mountains. Dotting the mountainsides are long-abandoned mines and the remains of miners’ cabins. Near the airport is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, guarantee of the world’s crop diversity.

While researching my book N-4 Down: The Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia, I had my picture taken, quickly, by the sign with a polar bear inside a big red triangle on the edge of Longyearbyen, the capital of the islands. Underneath read “Gjelder hele Svalbard,” meaning “applies to all of Svalbard.”

Svalbard is a place of hope for humanity. The mountainous islands were “officially” discovered in 1596 by Dutch explorer Willem Barents. They became legally terra nullius, or nobody’s land, visited by whalers from many countries who fought each other for control and traders and trappers from northern Russia called the Pomors whose visits may predate Barents.

In the years before World War I, European and American companies began mining on the islands, in part because of the coal reserves, but also because of their legal status, which meant there were no taxes or laws. Longyearbyen was founded by the American-owned Arctic Coal Company and named after John M. Longyear, one of its founders, who argued for the United States to take over Svalbard.

The “coal rush” then turned into a coal war over sovereignty, but this was resolved at the Versailles Peace Conference, thanks in part to a collapse in the price of coal and chaos in Germany and Russia.

The resulting Svalbard Treaty gave Norway sovereignty over the islands, but also gave other signatory states and their citizens (which now includes North Korea) the right to live there, carry out commercial activities, exploit resources, and own property. There are around 3,000 people living on Svalbard, including 500 who mine coal at Russian Barentsburg.

Taxes may be collected only for the benefit of Svalbard, so income tax is lower than on the mainland. Military activities are limited.

The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth, and this has consequences.

While the sea ice is disappearing and polar bears face extinction, the hunt for oil and gas is moving north, and new routes for commercial shipping are opening.

Tragically, the Arctic is estimated to include 13% of the Earth’s oil reserves and a quarter of its untapped gas reserves. The untapped reserves in the Russian region alone have an estimated value of $35 trillion. Little wonder, President Putin is offering $300 billion of incentives for new projects.

Consequently, tensions between the Arctic powers are increasing and the historical, often conflicting, sovereignty claims are coming to the surface.

In the 1920s aviators such as Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile flew over the Arctic in fixed-wing airplanes and airships looking for undiscovered land and resources, ready to claim it for their country. Norwegian nationalists even dreamed of forging a “greater Norway,” with Svalbard the first step.

In the 21st century, Canada is claiming sovereignty over the Northwest Passage and up to the North Pole. Denmark lays claim to a large area up to and beyond the North Pole that is connected to the continental shelf of the Danish territory of Greenland—which may explain why President Trump was keen to buy it. Not to be outdone, Russia claims the Northern Sea Route and, indeed, much of the Arctic Ocean.

Some stunts used to assert these supposed rights have something of the theatricality of the 1920s about them, like the rustproof titanium flag that a Russian submarine planted on the seabed at the North Pole in 2007.

Others appear to be deadly serious. The Americans have accused the Russians of “militarizing” the Arctic. The Russian Northern Fleet regularly demonstrates its power in the Arctic Ocean, and has been building its military presence on nearby Franz Josef Land.

Then there is information warfare. The Norwegian celebrations of the centenary of the Svalbard Treaty in February 2020 led to three months of an “information offensive” in the Russian media against the Nordic country. Russian outlets pumped out aggressive messages claiming that these territories belong to Russia, and asserting that Norway must comply with their demands or face serious consequences.

It is not clear how serious this rivalry is. Oil and gas prices remain low, and it is hard to imagine NATO members Denmark and Canada going to war. The grievances that fuel the Russian demands could be resolved through diplomacy, but Oslo is intransigent and Moscow has proved adept at unconventional warfare.

In the end, the lesson of 1920 is that sovereignty claims could be resolved by a collapse in the price of oil and gas due to decarbonization, and a treaty that separates sovereignty and the right to exploit resources. Otherwise, conflict is likely.

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