Shrinking Ice, Growing Problems: Why We Must Act Now to Solve Emerging Problems Posed by an Ice-Free Arctic
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Reforming the treaty, however, would be difficult. The UNCLOS is not a region-specific treaty: over 150 nations are signatories, and 145 have ratified it.154 The UNCLOS initially took over a decade to acquire the required number of signatures to become effective.155 The dramatic reform required to make the UNCLOS an effective means to protect the Arctic would likely require member states to redraft large portions of the massive document. Nations around the world would subsequently have to acquiesce to the changes.156
If the international community makes the required changes to the UNCLOS, there is always the risk that current member states will rebuke the new treaty. If the reformed treaty fails to gain acceptance, not only would the Arctic remain unprotected, but so would the world’s other oceanic environments. This risk may not be worth its potential cost. Even if member states form a consensus of better protecting the Arctic environment, and more ratify the treaty, it still may prove to be ineffective. Many nations, including the United States, tend to ratify treaties only to claim reservations about provisions they do not like.157 This severely limits a treaty’s ability to create the kind of change necessary to protect the Arctic.
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Increases in resource exploration result in increased navigation.53 In addition to transportation tied directly to oil exploration, the Arctic will also become a favored route for merchants.54
There are numerous reasons to take advantage of Arctic sea routes. Not only are they much shorter than alternate shipping routes, but they also allow companies to avoid the costs associated with utilizing canals and the threats of pirates in certain parts of the world.55 Though the trip may be economically efficient, it is still not entirely void of danger. Scientists predict that icebergs and other hazards will continue to persist well into the future, thus increasing the danger to voyages through the Arctic region.56
Regardless of oil spills, the animals living in the area will face changed circumstances. Ocean-bearing ships leave a significant amount of pollution behind simply by operating in the ocean.57 In 1999, 12.5 percent of all oceanic pollution resulted from the transportation of petroleum.58 Noise pollution is also a serious concern among environmentalists in the region.59 If species cannot effectively communicate, scientists argue, their interactions will be limited, resulting in a less diverse and less resilient marine ecosystem.60 Policymakers should consider this harm in relation to the special state of the Arctic ecosystem, which tends to be more sensitive to these types of external, human-caused factors.
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The ecosystem of the Arctic is more susceptible to pollution than other parts of the world.28 There are several factors that contribute to the Arctic’s vulnerability:
- Low temperatures retard the decomposition of natural and manmade substances and the breakdown of pollutants;
- Regeneration is a protracted process because of the short growing season;
- Large concentrations of animals heighten vulnerability to catastrophes;
- Marine areas are particularly important in the Arctic in comparison with other regions of the globe;
- Climatic conditions are likely to produce a more pronounced carbon dioxide-induced warming trend in the Arctic than in temperate regions and are already leading to high concentrations of air pollutants that threaten vegetation as well as human and animal life; and
- Severe weather and ice dynamics make environmental protection and cleanup extremely difficult.29
The intricate interactions and complex food-webs within the Arctic ecosystem make these concerns even more pronounced.30 Simply put, the Arctic ecosystem is ―extremely complex.31 The increased navigation and resource exploration that is likely to occur raises several important concerns. Though there are problems common to both resource exploration and navigation, this Note will discuss the challenges separately.
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There is also a significant problem with the generality of environmental protections in the UNCLOS. As mentioned previously, the treaty purports to regulate activity in all of the world’s oceans.136 It does not, therefore, deal explicitly with the very unique problems facing the Arctic environment.137 Unless the international community recognizes the region’s special needs, its natural environment will continue to worsen and become even more difficult to restore.
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However, even if the United States decides to ratify the treaty, there is still an inherent structural problem that may prevent the UNCLOS from solving disputes of any magnitude. This structural problems is that nations may opt-out of the UNCLOS dispute resolution procedures.134 In fact, every Arctic nation except Norway has chosen this method to avoid the binding language of the UNCLOS.135 The treaty’s substance hardly matters if there is no way to enforce its provisions.