Reading the latest reports about record Arctic ice shrinkage and disappearing Arctic ice sheets on the BBC leaves me wondering about the future of the Arctic region and the relations between those states that border this de-frosting wilderness.
A little while back the BBC also did a news report on a new map showing the claims by various nations on the Arctic region. What is striking about this map are the enormous potential claims that countries such as Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway have over the Arctic Region. The potential claims by the US are in comparison extremely small.
The second thing apparent from the map is just how much of the Arctic area is likely to be the subject of competing claims. with potential disputes among many of the potential claimants.
Historically most of the countries involved in the Arctic have treated the area as somewhere primarily to be explored and to some extent protected. The USA and Russia both engaged in some military manoeuvring in the region but there was little direct hostility.
The prospect of the Arctic becoming essentially open navigable water for large parts of the year however seems likely to change all this. Oil, mineral supplies and fish stocks will continue to be in great demand but are dwindling elsewhere. As a result the potential exploitation of the Arctic area now seriously beckons the countries that fringe the area.
The stakes will be high not only for the countries involved but also for the fragile wildlife. Canada and Russia both appear to have already woken up to the changes that are taken place. The Russians planted a flag on the sea bed under the Arctic ice sheet to show their claim and the Canadians have been more forcefully patrolling their once frozen waters and the now increasingly open North West Passage.
Claims on mineral and other commodities are not all that is at stake. In an era when transport costs are significant the prospect of using the Arctic waters as a shorter route between countries is enticing. But who will control these routes?
In military terms each country will start to become nervous if others start to actually develop any size of operational base in the claimed regions. Again this arises because of the shorter travelling distances involved.
In short it would appear that the Arctic region has all the seeds sown ready for conflict to spring up between the nations that have claims in the area. How long it will be before serious conflict does occur? Or will the nations involved manage to accommodate to each other and ensure that any development protects the fragile ecosystem of the Arctic?