President of India Pranab Mukherjee has now become the first Indian head of state to visit Norway. He is set to cross the famed Arctic Circle on Thursday. This visit is India’s way of marking its presence in the ongoing Great Arctic Rush.
After gaining the status of a permanent observer in the Arctic Council in May 2013, India now has a stronger position in the global geopolitics of the region. The council, at present, has eight countries—US, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Finland—as its member states. India also has a research station, Himadri, in Spitsbergen at Svalbard, Norway. It has been reported that the president, during the current visit, had a rare interaction through video-conference with Indian scientists working at the station, located 1,200 km from the North Pole.
Addressing a press conference in Oslo, Mukherjee had said that the observer status further helped India gain a strategic toehold in the Arctic region. “India’s interests in the Arctic region are scientific, environmental, commercial as well as strategic,” he stressed.
What the great Arctic rush is all about
Oil, natural gas, minerals and fish—there is enough of these trapped under the melting sea ice of Arctic to satiate the world’s growing hunger. A few official estimates also say that Arctic holds 3 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves and 30 per cent of undiscovered gas deposits. Agreements on earth sciences are one of the major agendas of the President’s visit.
While India and China are seen as new players eyeing the resources hidden in Arctic, the eight nations surrounding the Arctic Ocean will be in a frenzy not to let go of even an inch of their territory.
Recently, Guardian had cited local television reports to say that traces of gas had been discovered by the British exploration company Cairn Energy in Baffin Bay a few hundred miles to the north-west of Greenland. If these first hydrocarbon traces prove an accurate indicator of major reserves below the Arctic seabed, they may in time produce untold wealth for Greenland's population – financially dependent on Denmark – of 56,000 Inuit people and other ethnic groups, clinging to existence 460 miles from the North Pole in one of the world's harshest terrains.
Environment at increased risk
Recent scientific studies confirm that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe. It is also getting thinner and younger. It was recently reported that the ice cover in the Arctic sea shrank to its summer minimum—and sixth-lowest level on record—on September 17, 2014. This is the sixth lowest level since 1978.
But unlike Antarctica, which is protected from exploitation by the Antarctic Treaty framed during the Cold War and is not subject to territorial claims by any country, there is no legal regime protecting the Arctic from industrialisation, especially at a time when the world craves for more and more resources.
Moreover, with melting ice and opening sea lanes, passages around Arctic may become navigable round the year in the coming decades, they could redraw the global trading routes. Shipping routes will shift from politically unstable regions like Western Asia and piracy-infested routes like the South China Sea, the Malacca Straits and the Gulf of Aden. A recent report said that the melting Arctic ice is widening a path which can be used by ships to deliver European oil to Asia— and South Korea is geographically best located to benefit from the new route.
The increased quest for resources and changing trade patterns and use are big environmental concerns. While building of infrastructure in extreme weather conditions is a challenge (which may hinder exploration activities and affect the economic viability of projects), such activities may add to global warming as the permafrost in the region has huge quantities of carbon tapped in it.