The Arctic seas are important in regulating the global climate, as well as providing great potential for oil and gas exploitation and for future transportation routes.
Two times the surface of the European continent, 20 million square kilometres, is the size of the entire Arctic marine environment. The enormity of these seas means a large shift of waters, which take part in regulating the global climate. This is what the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s recently released Global Environment Outlook report (GEO-3) states.
More fresh water is entering the oceans because the Arctic pack ice is melting. A decline of over 40 per cent has been measured from the 1960s to 1990s. Over 18 years, the ice season has lengthened in the western hemisphere, most strongly in the western Labrador Sea. However, in the eastern hemisphere, freeze-up is occurring later and thawing is occurring earlier, leaving large areas ice-free for several weeks.
These large waters also have considerable economic and strategic potential. For instance, shipping routes are opening up along the Arctic coast of Russia with a potential to directly link Asia with Western Europe.
There are vast oil and gas reserves along the continental shelves bordering the Arctic, as well as important mineral deposits. Oil and gas development is already underway along the coast of Alaska and in the Barents, Kara and Pechora Seas. More sites are planned and there are growing concerns about the potential disturbances to the Arctic ecology from oil spills and loss of habitat
The Arctic waters are under a potential risk of radioactive contamination from ocean dumping of radioactive waste, which was common until the London Dumping Convention came into effect. Six nuclear submarine reactors have been sunk off the coast of Russia.
To secure and protect the Arctic seas, the Arctic countries adopted a Regional Programme of Action for Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment against Land-based Activities, among other regulations. Given the current warming trend and interest in resource exploitation in the Arctic, the expectation is that there will be further exploitation of the Arctic marine environment and increased competition for strategic advantages.
For further reading:
GEO–3 www.grida.no/geo/geo3/index.htm PAME (1997)
www.grida.no/prog/polar/aeps/pamestrp.htm PAME (2001) pame.arctic-council.org