Huge oil, mineral deposits heating up the Arctic

Washington: The Arctic, home to nearly 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and huge mineral deposits, is witnessing a gold rush-like scramble, including military activities from major powers to tap the riches of the frigid region.

According to climate scientists, the warming of the region is shrinking the polar ice cap at an alarming rate, reducing the permafrost layer and wreaking havoc on polar bears and other indigenous wildlife in the region.

If the global warming trend continues as many scientists project it to, it is likely that more and more resources will be discovered as the ice melts further.

What is bad for the animals, though, has been good for commerce, according to a CNN documentary "Ice Wars."

The recession of the sea ice and the reduction in permafrost — combined with advances in technology – have allowed access to oil, mineral and natural gas deposits that were previously trapped in the ice.

The US, Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Finland all stake a claim to a portion of the Arctic. These countries make up the Arctic Council, a diplomatic forum designed to mediate disputes on Arctic issues.

The abundance of these valuable resources and the opportunity to exploit them has created a gold rush-like scramble in the high north, with fierce competition to determine which countries have the right to access the riches of the Arctic, the documentary says.

This competition has brought in its wake a host of naval and military activities that the Arctic has not seen since the end of the Cold War.

Now, one of the coldest places on Earth is heating up as nuclear submarines, Aegis-class frigates, strategic bombers and a new generation of icebreakers are resuming operations there, the documentary, to be aired today, says.

The Arctic is home to approximately 90 billion barrels of undiscovered but recoverable oil, according to a 2008 study by the US Geological Survey. And preliminary estimates are that one-third of the world`s natural gas may be harboured in the Arctic ice.

The Arctic also contains rich mineral deposits. Canada, which was not historically a diamond-producing nation, is now the third-largest diamond producer in the world, the report noted.

Much of the activity of the Arctic Council is happening below the surface, the documentary says.

Canada and the US, strategic allies in NATO and Afghanistan, are in a diplomatic dispute over the Northwest Passage. Canada and Russia have recently signed development agreements together.

Right now, the most far-reaching legal document is the UN Convention on Law of the Sea. All of the Arctic states are using its language to assert their claims, it says.

One example is the Lomonosov Ridge, which Canada, Denmark and Russia all claim is within their territory, based on their cartographic interpretations.

Also complicating matters is the fact that the US has never ratified the Law of the Sea. That has given other Arctic Council nations more muscle to assert territorial rights.

With murky international agreements and an absence of clear legal authority, countries are preaching cooperation but preparing for conflict.

There has been a flurry of new military activity reminiscent of days past.

Two US nuclear-powered attack submarines, the SSN Connecticut and the SSN New Hampshire, recently finished conducting ice exercises in the Arctic. Other Arctic nations are ramping up their military capabilities as well.

Just this month, Russia announced that it is deploying two brigades to the Arctic, including a special forces unit.

The Russian air force has recently resumed strategic bomber flights over the Pole. Canada, Denmark and Norway are also rapidly rebuilding their military presence.

But despite the buildup, almost all of the activity in the Arctic has been within the scope of normal military operations or research, the documentary said.

However, it noted that the Cold War may be over, but the de-thawing of military activity means that the frigid Arctic is once again becoming a hot spot.