As we see it:
Muckrakers Bulletins provide basic background information to get beyond the headlines and facile analysis in the news. The two polar regions aren’t yet news.
Mark our words; they will be.
Myth abounds: for example, the Polar Regions as vast spaces, ice covered, all but impassible. Images of Franklin and other small bands of heroic explorers trudging across the frozen, windswept, all-but empty landscape to plant their country’s flags. Cute penguins, pretty reindeer (and jolly old Santa) live here. These are the stuff of legend.
Of course it isn’t like that.
Frontier and Testing Ground:
Better to think of the polar regions – north and south - as the next “frontier” for resources including energy, food and minerals, and as the next conduits for transportation of goods and resources. Both polar regions are centerpieces of current and looming geo-political disputes about everything from countries’ boundaries to rights.
Both are the testing ground for the limits of UN Treaties, other interstate organizations and NGOs. Both polar regions are, each in their own way, at least partly militarized already.
When we started on this Bulletin, we believed that Antarctica was the exception, a treaty-bound protected area belonging to all humankind. It is so, but not quite as it seems.
- We long recognize the northern peoples: the Samis, the Dene, the Inuit and all the many First Nations. But we barely saw the other north polar communities, cities really, sustained by investment and development in fossil fuels and other mineral extraction.
- We are acutely aware of the new data on climate change, the warming of the Arctic and the chunking-off of ice especially from Antarctica. We barely understood its significance for all the many players in opening up shipping routes and trade, and for the supply of fresh water to southern climes.
- We love pictures from friends who toured the polar regions, but we are only just now thinking about the impact of the tourist industry on fragile environments.
It is hard to believe that, the depth of the Cold War (1959-1961) a treaty was signed to protect the south polar region.
- It deemed this the continent as being in effect for all humankind and especially for research/science (all the various agreements together are called the Antarctic Treaty System).
- At the same time, it is important not to overestimate the terms of any south polar agreements, including the main one.
- They leave in place the existing territorial claims, including to the islands surrounding the continent, owned for example by France, UK and some of the surrounding countries (such as Argentina). For example, the main Agreement simply says there will be no new territorial claims and no expansion of the existing territorial claims, although any country can establish a research station.
- Limited though it is in practice, we can only dream that such an agreement existed for the north polar region.
Peoples of the north and south:
There are no indigenous peoples in the south polar region, There are about 40 nationally governed sites, some quite large, all deemed to be for research and scientific purposes. About 4,000 people are involved in the high season. However, tourism now reaches more than 40k people per year, and is growing rapidly.
- 4 million people live in the north polar region. Indigenous people mainly live in small settlements in Canada, Alaska, Russia, Greenland and Norway.
- In Canada, Alaska and Greenland, the indigenous way of life is more and less recognized and, in some cases, protected by land claims. Several self-government agreements have been signed. In Norway, Sweden and Russia not so; international law supports indigenous rights, but it is hardly evident in practice, and moreover Russia did not sign on.
- Major north polar region settlements are mainly in Russian; one city has 350,000 people but there are several others with well over 200,000 people each. These large cities are industrial.
Oil and Gas:
Under the south polar ice cap, likely there are likely to be huge oil and mineral deposits.
- Nearby (600 miles away) is the Falklands area, where there are likely major oil reserves and already big investments have been made by oil companies. One can understand the Falklands War as, in part, about this potential. Today continuing pressure is being exerted by the UK among others on Argentina to lift its restrictions on exploration. Where there is oil, there is likely to be gas as well.
- The north polar region has 13 % of the undeveloped oil reserves and 30% of the undeveloped natural gas reserves in the world. Some fossil fuel developments are controversial (the Beaufort Sea in Canada, for example), but most proceed unimpeded except by national environmental laws (where they exist).
In 1998, the UN waded in with a protocol that banned mineral exploration and exploitation in the south highly fragile polar region. The Protocol allowed for scientific research related to both.
- In the south polar region, what falls within the definition of scientific is left to the countries to determine. Technology development counts as scientific research.
- Sticking points to further agreement in the south polar region include deep seabed mining (said to affect exploration and exploitation in space also).
- In the north polar region, phosphates (fertilizer), bauxite (aluminum) iron, nickel, palladium (for detoxifying oil) diamonds and even gold is found with a number of large sites well developed already (see cities above).
Almost all of the fresh untapped water, whether in glaciers or ice sheets, lies in the north and south polar regions.
- Most free flowing fresh water resources are found in northern Canada and Russia.
- So far, south polar region fishing is not prohibited, but must be licensed “in the spirit of conservation”. There are activist groups promoting a managed fishery. One marine sanctuary area exists. A proposal prohibiting fishing for a second larger sanctuary area has been made.
- However, strategies are employed by many countries to end-run existing prohibitions and regulations exist. There is much illegal fishing.
- Despite a Commission and Convention signed in 1980, fish stocks of krill (used for feed and food supplements) and other species are declining.
- In the north polar region, nine countries, the EU plus China, Japan and South Korea have agreed to ban deep sea fishing in the central Arctic region (i.e. not the whole of the Arctic) for the next 13 years. Note however, this is the area that, until now, has been mainly inaccessible to fishing because of ice cap. Note also this fishing agreement can be up-ended by any one country, and its only other provisions are that eventually regulations must be put into place. Fishing in this protected area is not illegal per se. All the countries are committed to developing their ice-breaking capacity.
- Fishing within the 200-mile limit of north polar water abutting Alaska, Russia, Canada, Greenland and Norway is flourishing.
In the south polar region, restrictions on tourism were subject of an agreement in 2005, but there are no enforcement mechanisms, especially for tourist destinations just off the Antarctic shelf. It has become “the place to go”. The north polar region is now a tourist hotspot for cruise ships. They stop at Indigenous communities, buy out the available food, and move on.
The south polar region’s unique bio-heritage creates the potential for commercial bio-prospecting (collecting biological material that can later be used in medical and other products). None of this is regulated.
Getting to Market:
There is, as yet, no south polar shipping route others than those rounding South America and Africa, but plans are well underway, particularly by China, to develop southern hemisphere routes (and ports) that would support one.
- There is more than one passage through the north polar region touching on Alaska, Russia, Norway, Greenland and Canada, although there are jurisdictional disputes about whether or not they run through international waters (a few bi-lateral treaties exist). Russia currently collects a tariff from passing ships.
- Portions of the Russian coast along the route are ice-free year round even now. All northern polar routes in Canada/USA chart through some ice-locked territory for many months, although a few scientists predict that the most-iced Canadian part will be ice-free by 2030.
- The impetus for developing north polar routes and supporting infrastructure is four-fold:
1. the current shipping routes are conflict-ridden (e.g. Suez) and crowded,
2. shorter shipping distances can cut half the shipping times (e.g. for China)
3. all abutting countries seek resource development. They need better access,
4. and of course, climate change may make the previously impassable passable.
The south polar agreements say that military involvement can only be about logistics (which means many things). Research on space, cybernation and climate change, all of which have military and geopolitical implications, does not fall under prohibition.
- For example the giant telescope experiments at the Chinese research station has geopolitical, and potentially military applications.
- It has been claimed that some of the research stations in Antarctica are actually military bases inasmuch as the technology they employ is for military and strategic purposes.
- In the north polar region, both Russia and the US (and to a small extent the US-related developments in Canada) have had a military presence in the north polar region for decades.
- Russia has increased its presence dramatically while the US sees itself as playing catch-up in discarding international understandings about limitations on north polar militarization.
And who decides:
In the south polar region there is a plethora of regional bodies (for example, the Antarctic Council), UN Treaties and Protocols, and NGOs active in the area. Under these agreements there are some low-level inspections of the research stations.
- Even with the Treaty (see above), it would be a gross exaggeration to say that there is a regime of international governance.
- For the north polar region, an agreement, the Ilulissat Declaration, was signed and hailed in 2008. It includes aspirations for protecting the environment and for resolving disputes between and amongst countries. It limits participation in decision making to the five countries abutting the northern seas.
- Most importantly, Illulissat declares that there will be NO new comprehensive international governance regimes in the area. None!
The Import of the UN:
The various UN conventions that affect fishing, marine protection, environmental pollutants etc. in both polar regions are binding only on the countries that sign and ratify them. There are numerous examples of fish and whaling, for examples, that contravene or fall outside their provisions.
- The countries that do ratify write reports. There is no overall monitoring capacity connected to the treaties and protocols, and no enforcement provisions.
- On occasion, corporations have been granted rights to exploration, and in some cases, for exploitation of oil and gas and other mineral extraction, much of which does not fall under treaties except insofar as it can be argued that environment, fishing etc. might be affected.
- The “Law of the Sea” (UNCLOS) has a big impact as international customary law. It protects shipping routes and cargos, and it establishes the 12- and 200-mile extensions of national sovereignty over seas. The US observes but has not ratified UNCLOS. Under the Trump regime, it is not likely to do so.
- Mainly, it is individual countries (and bilateral agreements) in the north, and the Antarctic Treaty System in the south that determine what happens where.
The two polar regions are anything but empty, and their potential military and economic significance is increasing even as this is written, giving rise to a whole new realm of geo-politics and conflict.
Poor penguins and pity dear old Santa and her underpaid worker elves!