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The new scramble for the Arctic

By Keith Suter - posted Friday, 14 January 2011


A by-product of the speculation over climate change has been the suggestion that global warming will enable greater access to the Arctic’s considerable resources.

This could trigger a new scramble for territory, similar to that of the 19th century’s scramble for Africa. The Arctic used to be of interest mainly to science. Now increasingly it is a matter of political, economic and legal interest.

Part of the Arctic’s political complexity comes from the fact that the Arctic is not one single landmass (unlike, say, Antarctica).

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The region contains both the mainly ice-covered Arctic Ocean and some of the surrounding land, including all of Greenland (a Danish territory) and Spitsbergen (administered by Norway), and the northern parts of Alaska, Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden.

The Arctic Ocean is the planet’s smallest and least explored ocean.

There are even three ways of defining the Arctic’s “boundary”

  • northern limits of strands of trees on land (the treeline)
  • the line of average July temperature of 10 degrees C (50 degrees F)
  • the Arctic Circle which is based on the latitude 66 degrees and 33 minutes North

The region is also very diverse in terms of landscape, ranging from pack and drift ice to rugged shores, flat coastal plains, hills and mountains.

Indigenous peoples have lived within the region for thousands of years. They tended to live a quiet, fairly nomadic, isolated, independent-minded subsistence existence. They had minimal contact with the outside world.

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The neighbouring countries gradually expanded northwards. The Russians, for example, reached Siberia in the 16th century. They now control the largest single amount of Arctic territory (ahead of Canada). They were particularly interested in the fur of the local animals. The Russians were rarely welcomed by the Indigenous peoples.

The Russians sold Alaska to the US in 1867. There was no consultation with the Indigenous peoples. The US suddenly became a player in Arctic politics (although Alaska remains the US’s largest state and the third least populated one).

The Arctic remained on the periphery of world politics. Ironically its bleakness was a source of security: neighbouring countries knew that they were at least safe from land invasion from the north.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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