Fight for the Top of the World

Fight for the Top of the World

At the end of August, a wisp of flame suddenly appeared in the Arctic twilight over the Barents Sea, bathing the low clouds over the Norwegian port of Hammerfest in a spectral orange glow. With a tremendous roar, the flame bloomed over the windswept ocean and craggy gray rocks, competing for an instant with the Arctic summer’s never-setting sun. The first flare-off of natural gas from the Snohvit gas field, some 90 miles offshore, was a beacon of promise: After 25 years of false starts, planning and construction, the first Arctic industrial oil-and-gas operation outside of Alaska was up and running. Norway’s state-owned petroleum firm Statoil could finally exploit once unreachable reserves, expected to deliver an estimated $1.4 billion worth of liquefied natural gas each year for the next 25 years.

But in a place where the aurora borealis normally provides celestial beauty, Snow White’s luminous apparition also signals caution. What will a new era of exploitation bring to the Arctic, one of the earth’s last great uncharted regions? The vast area has long fascinated explorers, but it has just as long been the site of folly and exaggerated expectations. Over centuries, hundreds died in the doomed search for an ice-free Northwest Passage between Asia and Europe, many of them victims of ill-fated stabs at national and personal glory.

This summer, however, saw something new: for the first time in recorded history, the Northwest Passage was ice-free all the way from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The Arctic ice cap’s loss through melting this year was 10 times the recent annual average, amounting to an area greater than that of Texas and New Mexico combined. The Arctic has never been immune from politics; during the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet submarines navigated its frigid waters. But now that global warming has rendered the Arctic more accessible than ever — and yet at the same time more fragile — a new frenzy has broken out for control of the trade routes at the top of the world and the riches that nations hope and believe may lie beneath the ice. Just as 150 years ago, when Russia and Britain fought for control of central Asia, it is tempting to think that — not on the steppe or dusty mountains but in the icy wastes of the frozen north — a new Great Game is afoot.

Gas and Global Warming
Russia is at the thick of the new game. In an expedition that lacked nothing in patriotic bluster, a Russian-led team descended to the seabed on Aug. 2 and planted a titanium Russian flag directly on the North Pole. In early September, Russian bombers launched cruise missiles during Arctic exercises. But it isn’t only the Russians who are staking their claims. On Aug. 10, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper flew to Resolute, a hamlet of 250 souls on Cornwallis Island in the northern territory of Nunavut, and announced plans for an Arctic military training facility and a refurbished deep-water port on the Northwest Passage. Then Danish scientists set sail on an expedition to map the seabed north of Greenland, a Danish dependency, and — not to be outdone — the U.S. Coast Guard dispatched the cutter Healy on a similar mission north of Alaska. The flurry of activity has prompted the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to schedule hearings this month to push for U.S. ratification of the international treaty on the Law of the Sea, which came into force in 1994. Ratification of the treaty has long been opposed by conservatives, who consider it a shackle on U.S. sovereignty, but it now has the support of the Bush Administration, largely because its terms would allow Washington to weigh in with its own claims in northern waters.