Saturday, December 24, 2011

The colder war: U.S., Russia and others are vying for control of Santa’s back yard

The USS New Hampshire conducting exercises in the Arctic Ocean, north of Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay. Although the United States has a clearly stated Arctic strategy, the country has limited capabilities to defend and explore the region.

Santa Claus may see you when you’re sleeping, but NORAD makes sure it sees Santa pretty much round-the-clock. The North American Aerospace Defense Command not only follows Saint Nick’s sleigh ride with its famous NORAD Tracks Santa site, but it is also involved in a struggle over resources, border control and broader military presence right in Santa’s vast and magnificent home: the Arctic.

In April, President Obama signed a new command plan that gives NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command greater responsibility in protecting the North Pole and U.S. Arctic territory.

The Arctic region — covering more than 30 million square kilometers and stretching around the territorial borders of Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Russia and the United States by way of the Alaskan coastline — is transforming before our eyes. And not just because the ice is melting. It’s increasingly the site of military posturing, and the United States isn’t keeping up with the rest of the world.

In 2009, Norway moved its operational command to its northern territories above the Arctic Circle. Russia has plans to establish a brigade that is specially equipped and prepared for military warfare in Arctic conditions. Denmark has made it a strategic priority to form an Arctic Command. Canada is set to revitalize its Arctic fleet, including spending $33 billion to build 28 vessels over the next 30 years. Even China has entered the Arctic race; it constructed the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker to conduct scientific research in the Arctic.

September marked the lowest recorded levels of sea ice in the Northern Polar Region. The polar ice cap today is 40 percent smaller than it was in 1979, and in the summer of 2007 alone, 1 million more square miles of ice beyond the average melted, uncovering an area of open water six times the size of California. As quickly as the polar ice cap recedes, commercial opportunities in the resource-rich Arctic advance. The Arctic is governed by the U.N. convention on the Law of the Sea. That framework allows a coastal state to have exclusive economic control 200 miles off its coast — and possibly to extend authority 600 miles beyond, depending on certain scientific claims.

In the 21st-century Arctic, large corporations and countries are racing to reach and capture the abundance of offshore oil and gas as well as iron ore, nickel, cooper, palladium and rare-earth minerals. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the Arctic contains 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil resources and 30 percent of its gas resources. And as the ice melts, cargo transport could increase from the 111,000 tons in 2010 to more than 1 million tons in 2012, according to some Russian estimates.

It’s not just a natural-resources race. Cruise ships take eco-tourists to see the North Pole, stunning Arctic coastline vistas and endangered species such as beluga whales and polar bears — for $24,000 to $35,000 a head. In addition, international scientists search for climate-change clues in Arctic permafrost conditions, ice dynamics and glaciers. Fishing trawlers hunt for lucrative fish stocks.

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