Arctic Ocean and its Relevance

  • Categories
    Geography
  • Published
    30th Mar, 2021

Context

Recently, India has unveiled a new draft 'Arctic' policy that, among other things, commits to expanding scientific research, “sustainable tourism” and mineral oil and gas exploration in the Arctic region.

Background

  • India has been invested in the Arctic region for years and to secure its share of the pie that the region offers in terms of research and resources, including minerals and hydrocarbons, the Indian government has now unveiled a draft Arctic policy.
  • It envisages India’s engagement in the Arctic region for climate research, environmental monitoring, maritime cooperation and energy security.
  • “India’s Arctic Policy Roadmap For Sustainable Engagement” draft rides on five pillars:
    • scientific research
    • economics and human development
    • connectivity
    • global governance and international cooperation
    • development of Indian human resource capabilities
  • Through the policy, India seeks to play a constructive role in the Arctic by leveraging its vast scientific pool and expertise in Himalayan and Polar research.
  • India also aims to contribute in ensuring that as the Arctic becomes more accessible, the harnessing of its resources is done sustainably and in consonance with best practices formulated by bodies such as the Arctic Council.
  • India’s engagement with the Arctic dates back to nearly nine decades when it signed the ‘Svalbard Treaty’ in February 1920 in Paris.
  • The country became an Observer in the Arctic Council for the first time in 2013; its membership in that body was renewed for a second five-year term in 2018.

In this context, we will comprehensively go through the importance of the Arctic Ocean for India and the World.

Analysis

Mapping the region

  • The Arctic region comprises the Arctic Ocean and parts of countries such as Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, USA (Alaska), Finland, Sweden and Iceland.
    • These countries together form the core of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum.
  • Arctic Ocean, smallest of the world’s oceans, centering approximately on the North Pole, is almost completely encircled by the landmasses of North America, Eurasia, and Greenland.
  • It lies entirely within the Arctic Circle and contains,
    • deep (~ 4500m) basins,
    • the slowest spreading oceanic ridges in the world
    • about 15% of the world's continental shelf area
  • Diminishing Ice-cover in the Arctic: The Arctic is most remarkable for its perennial (multiyear) sea-ice, which historically covered about half of the Arctic Ocean, although in recent years (2007 onward, compared to the 1980s), warming of the Arctic has reduced the perennial sea-ice area by around 40%.

Resource rich Ocean

  • The natural resources of the Arctic are the mineral and animal resources within the Arctic Circle that can provide utility or economic benefit to humans.
  • Living resources: These are primarily the abundant fisheries.
  • Mineral resources: They include major reserves of oil and natural gas, large quantities of minerals including iron ore, copper, nickel, zinc phosphates and diamonds.
    • The Arctic could hold some of the world's largest remaining untapped oil and gas reserves.
    • But oil exploration poses a tremendous risk to vulnerable Arctic ecosystems and communities.
    • However, recent low oil prices, a low carbon economy climate agenda, and technical challenges of Arctic oil extraction have curbed interest in these Arctic resources.
  • Fresh water: It is a critical renewable resource that can be obtained. Several of the world’s largest rivers flow into the Arctic Ocean. This offers the opportunity for two possible developments.
    • the first is to divert the flow, or part of it, to regions short of water
    • the second (and the two are not mutually exclusive) is to use the energy in hydroelectric schemes

Role in regulating Climate

  • Despite its remoteness, the Arctic Ocean is a critical component in the interconnected “machine” that regulates Earth’s climate.
  • Influence on Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC): The “global conveyor belt” of currents (i.e AMOC) that regulate temperatures across the globe starts with the cold water of the North Atlantic.
    • The Arctic ocean plays a significant role in strengthening this ocean current.
    • Fresh water from melting glaciers, thawing sea ice, and the Greenland ice sheet flooding through the Fram Strait has the potential to slow down or disrupt this cycle.
  • Normally, the Stratospheric Polar Vortex swirls around the Arctic, trapping cold air near the Pole. Warming of the Arctic Ocean can weaken this polar vortex disturbing the weather pattern in North America and other regions around the Arctic coast.

Diminished Arctic ice has far-reaching impacts

  • Arctic amplification: Ice acts as an “air conditioner” for the planet, reflecting about 70 percent of incoming solar radiation; a dark, ice-free ocean absorbs about 90 percent, which further accelerates warming.
  • Threat to food chain: Decreased ice has major impacts on the Arctic ecosystem, from algae growing on sea ice at the base of the food chain to whales and In?upiaq people at the top. Ice also provides hunting platforms critical for the survival of walrus and polar bears.
  • Change Ocean circulation patterns: Melting ice adds fresh water that can flow into the North Atlantic, shifting the density of its waters, and potentially leading to ocean circulation shifts and further climate change.
  • Rise in sea levels: Accelerated input of Greenland ice into the ocean means higher, faster sea-level rises.
  • Thawing permafrost poses threats: It increases coastal erosion and damage to roads, buildings, and pipelines. It releases the greenhouse gas methane, and toxic and other materials into the environment, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
  • World Security: An ice-free Arctic Ocean will intensify military operations in this strategic part of the globe.
    • Antarctica, though uninhabited, is governed by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty ensuring that it is used for exclusively peaceful purposes. There is no similar international regime for the Arctic.

Opportunities unearthed as Ice melts:

  • Easy access to resources: An ice-free Arctic Ocean opens possibilities for increased shipping, oil and gas exploration, and fisheries.
  • Shorten Trade Routes: The Northern Sea Route (NSR) which connects the North Atlantic to the North Pacific through a short polar arc was once not open for navigation.
  • The melting ice has now made it a reality and a trickle of commercial cargo vessels have been going through every summer since the last decade.

Why the region assumes significance for India?

  • Though none of India’s territory directly falls in the Arctic region, it is a crucial area as the Arctic influences atmospheric, oceanographic and biogeochemical cycles of the earth’s ecosystem.
  • The frigid Arctic, which keeps losing icedue to global warming, is one of the batteries feeding the variations in Indian monsoons, over 7,000 kilometres away.
  • Studying the response to warming in the form of melting is quite relevant to India as it provides tools to monitor changes in the Arctic.
  • Changes in the Arctic and global ecosystem, induced by melting Arctic ice, can thus be highly disruptive for India.

Indian initiatives in Arctic

  • India already has a research station in the Arctic, Himadri, for the research work.
  • India received the ‘Observer’ country status in the Arctic Council in 2013 and is one among the 13 countries across the world, including China, to have that position.
  • The status was renewed in 2018. 

Geopolitics of Arctic

  • Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark have put in overlapping claims for extended continental shelves.
  • The US, not a party to UNCLOS, is unable to put in a formal claim but is under pressure to strengthen its Arctic presence.
  • For the present, Russia is the dominant power, with the longest Arctic coastline, half the Arctic population, and a full-fledged strategic policy.
  • Russia anticipates huge dividends from commercial traffic including through the use of its ports, pilots, and ice-breakers.
  • China, playing for economic advantage, has moved in fast, projecting the Polar Silk Road as an extension of the BRI, and has invested heavily in ports, energy, undersea infrastructure, and mining projects.

What are the concerns for India?

  • India has a large coastline that makes it more vulnerable to the impact of Arctic warming on ocean currents, weather patterns, fisheries, and most importantly, our monsoon.
  • Scientific Research in the Arctic will help India in better understanding of climate changes in the Himalayas.
  • With China actively participating in developments in the Arctic and as its relationship grows with Russia, close monitoring for India becomes strategically important.

Conclusion

The impact of rapid changes in the Arctic region goes beyond the littoral states and any legitimate and credible mechanism to respond to these challenges calls for active participation of all those actors who have a stake in the governance of global commons. The interplay between science and policy has the potential to contribute to the better handling of the complex issues facing the Arctic.

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