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Benefits of the Artctic Ice Thaw Questionable

February 09, 2012, 18:39 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The fact that the Arctic ice cap has been melting is no reason to be happy. Ecologists who declared 2012 to be the year of the Arctic noted that only losses from that trend have been in sight so far, while the hypothetical benefits from developing new territories are rather hazy.

The Arctic is melting faster than many have anticipated. At the same time there are ever more countries that eager to develop the region, which may throw its ecological system off balance. Russia, in the meantime, is determined to safeguard its interests in the Arctic, contested not just by the group of five countries of the region, but by many others.

The Arctic region has an area of 21 million square kilometers of land and 13 million of square kilometers of ice-clad seas. According to various estimates, it may contain over 40 percent of the world’s reserves of oil and gas, and also considerable deposits of coal, zinc and silver.The boundaries of the shelf in the Arctic have not been determined to this day. It is being contested by five Arctic countries (Russia, the United States, Denmark, Norway and Canada). Russia and Norway have managed to come to terms, but the question of borders is far from being settled. Besides, claims begin to be put forward by other states, including China, which argues, for instance, that the Arctic must be everybody’s asset, like the Antarctic.

Competition among the Arctic countries went into high gear in view of the global warming. According to the scientists’ forecasts, vast territories in the North may be clear of ice this century, which might allow for tapping of mineral resources.According to the coordinator of the program Climate and Energy of the World Wildlife Fund, Alexei Kokorin, who is quoted by Moskovsky Komsomolets, over the past thirty years the ice cap has shrunk by two-thirds. Presumably the Arctic may be clear of ice by 2060, but, if some theories are to be believed, by 2030. Although this may happen only in the summer time (in the winter the Arctic will be covered by ice as before), changes may be significant.

However, according to ecologists’ specialists, so far only losses from this trend have made themselves felt. Russia’s territory may lose 1,500 square kilometers of land. Melting ice costs the country an annual 30 square kilometers. Particularly serious damage to the coast line is caused in the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea. Experts predict that if permafrost areas begin to melt, the infrastructures of the cities there will be ruined. According to the WWF director, Igor Chestin, up to 40 percent of the infrastructure and buildings there are in danger. The piles that the buildings rest upon are beginning to give in.

High temperatures, say the ecologists, may destroy the ice covers of the Novaya Zemlya and the Severnaya Zemlya islands. There will appear many icebergs, which would endanger oil rigs and shipping. In the meantime, experts have big doubts that the Arctic will be well-developed by the oil and gas companies in fifty years’ time, even despite the licenses they have obtained for drilling. Oil producers are warned that after the melting of the Arctic ice cap they may save a lot on building icebreaker fleets and costly oil tankers and ice rigs. Moreover, there will be smaller risks in case of accidents and oil spills.

The effects of oil spills in the Arctic, according to ecologists, might be catastrophic. “Oil does not decompose under low temperatures, and ice has the ability to absorb oil like a sponge, and so far no effective know-how of eliminating the effects of such breakdowns has been devised,” says the chief of the laboratory of analysis at the Oceanology Institute under the Russian Academy of Sciences, Inna Nemirovskaya. Therefore, the development of the high-longitude Arctic (areas around the North Pole) will remain a very costly business. Russia, in the meantime, continues to press for its geopolitical interests in the Arctic. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said more than once that Russia is determined to expand its presence in the Arctic. He said that the region would get advanced border protection infrastructure, weather watching stations, and systems to monitor the condition of the environment and biological resources. Putin said that Russia would be defending its geopolitical interests firmly and systematically. Russia’s claims to the ocean shelf are fraught with serious frictions with the other states, in the first place, the United States and Canada. The Navy’s commander, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky said last year that the economic interest of Russia in the Arctic began to be threatened more often lately by the NATO countries and some Southeast Asian states.“Of late, we got many confirmations the North Atlantic Alliance sees the Arctic as a zone of its interests,” said Vysotsky. He also said that “some Southeast Asian states have stepped up their activity in the Arctic. He mentioned China, Japan, South Korea, and also Malaysia and Thailand. Russia’s Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has unveiled plans for creating two brigades for defending Russia’s interests in the Arctic. They may be deployed in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk.Russia, which has at its disposal the strongest ice-breaker fleet, including nine nuclear-powered icebreakers, is the sole country which has the ability to escort merchant and naval convoys. The government has said that Russia is determined to build up its ice-breaker fleet.

The Finance Ministry in 2012 will give enough money to build three nuclear-powered ice-breakers and as many diesel-powered ones.The struggle for the Arctic is tough-going. Russia has unsuccessfully tried to expand the boundaries of its shelf since 2001. As the Foreign Ministry’s special envoy, Anton Vasiliev, has told the newspaper Tribuna, Russia’s application for the continental shelf has been in front of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) since 2001. In case of its approval “our borders in the Arctic will not be moved an inch,” but Russia will gain two sovereign rights – to seabed exploration and to the use of these resources.”As he commented on the proposals for sharing the Arctic on a pattern similar to the 1959 treaty on the Antarctic, the diplomat said that the Arctic was not a wildlife preserve.“Inside the Arctic Circle there is a population of about four million. The Arctic is a region where there operate both national laws and international law. For this reason the Arctic is greatly different from the Antarctic. Any treaty like that on the Antarctic, which would declare the Arctic as a common asset of the whole of humanity, would be impossible.”

MOSCOW, February 9.