Warming arctic is opening up new potential shipping lanes and resource extraction possibilities but increasing risks of conflict and tension over the same
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Once long neglected in terms of governance and management, the Arctic is slowly attracting greater attention as a region in need of an effective legal regime following the observed and potential the impact of climate change in recent time.29 Science has provided overwhelming evidence of human-influenced Arctic climate change and the likelihood that the pace of change is accelerating. Scientists predict that the Arctic may be ice-free for the first time in recorded history by as early as 2013.30
An ice-free Arctic has two important implications. First, it will expose vast regions of seabed that are rich in natural resources, making extraction of these resources possible. It is estimated that about 30 per cent of undiscovered gas and 13 per cent of undiscovered oil can be found in the marine areas north of the Arctic Circle.31 According to the USGS estimates, Arctic region has the hydrocarbon reserves of 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.32 Second, an ice-free Arctic will open previously impassable shipping lanes, thereby, improving prospects for Arctic navigation. The most promising route, historically known as the "Northwest Passage" may become navigable, which would reduce the length of the voyage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by an astonishing 9000 kilometers.33
This will result in two separate but related problems. First, the increased value of the region due to commercial exploration and trade will prompt Arctic nations to rush to establish their claim over the region. In fact, many Arctic countries, pursuant to Article 76 of the UNCLOS, are preparing to submit requests to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to establish the outer limits of their continental shelves.34 This has caused the spectre of rising tension over yet to be asserted maritime claims over the vast Arctic Ocean. The tension been further acerbated by the feasibility to extract the potential hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic seabed. The receding polar ice cap has ignited the competition for the mineral rights in the Arctic seabed. The competition arises from the fact that the Arctic is ―the only place where a number of countries encircle an enclosed ocean,35 which gives numerous countries a valid claim for the same territory.36
Currently, there is no major tension between the Arctic states. They all want peaceful solutions to their border disputes and see the advantages of freedom of navigation through the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage. However, at the time when the coastal nations are able to increase their oil production in the Arctic, conflict can more easily occur. A shortage of energy and other resources will make the nations more determined to solve their border issues, which may increase the tension between them.