Protecting the Arctic

Written evidence submitted by the Scottish Marine Institute


· Majority of Arctic resourced are with coastal state EEZs (ie. 200 nm) and are directly controlled by aforementioned states under a mix of domestic instruments and international commitments.

· The advent of an Arctic ‘treaty’ is highly unlikely due to sovereignty issues. However, there is enormous scope for increased cooperation, information sharing, and knowledge exchange to improve Arctic environmental protection. While the chance of a binding Arctic regime is remote, the pressing issue is the implementation of existing environmental treaties across all Arctic states.

· Very little industrial expansion has occurred to date, however the prospects are highly likely that expansion will occur. Nonetheless, oil and gas exploitation and increased shipping offers opportunities for the UK to be a ‘responsible player’ and drive sustainability through all aspects of Arctic operations and collaboration.

· Increasing scientific and diplomatic effort is essential to improving Arctic protection. The Uk has a unique role to do this through it’s good relations with Arctic states; via the EU; and through building ties with emerging influential states such as China, Japan and Korea.

· The UK should increasingly look North as its traditionally looked South.

How the effects of global warming might open up the region to commercial opportunities, and how the UK in taking advantage of these might ensure that the region's environment is protected.

1.1 The Arctic has been the focus of unprecedented interest in recent years. Much of the narrative on the Arctic tends to characterise the region as an arena for resource-driven jurisdictional and geopolitical rivalry. Such States primarily comprise the Arctic coastal States but considerable interest in the region has been shown by extra-regional powers such as the EU (including the UK), China and South Korea.

1.2 Events in the Arctic in recent years provide compelling evidence of global climate change well documented in scientific and media circles. The 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) update and recent Snow, Water Ice & Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA) [1] conclude that the Arctic continues to warm with key indicators such as air temperature and sea ice changing at rates previously unanticipated.

1.3 In September 2007 the summer sea ice minimum had shrunk to its lowest level ever recorded since measurements began. The United States National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) reported that the average five-day mean sea ice extent in September 2007 was 4.13 million square kilometres (km2) an enormous reduction from the 1979-2000 average of 6.74km2 million. Summer ice extents for subsequent years (2008-10) have closely tracked that for 2007, while not quite reaching the record low level. In 2008 average September ice extent was recorded as 4.67km2 million, the second lowest on record. In 2009, conditions recovered slightly to 5.36km2 million, but still 1.68km2 million below the average. The figure for 2010 reached a summer minimum of 4.6km2 million recorded for 19 September 2010, the third-lowest on record. On September 9, 2011 sea ice extent dropped to 4.33 million square kilometres the second lowest on record. Overall changes in sea ice can be observed in Figure 1. Arctic summer sea ice extent appears form the recorded data to be on a continual and long-term downward trend, losing 11.2% of volume per decade.

1.2 There are several physical, political and economic mechanisms and principles that will influence resource expansion and maritime activity in the Arctic. They include:

· Sub regional dynamics of temperature changes and ice reduction

· International markets for commodities. For example, the changes in US non-conventional gas supply (ie. Shale gas) significantly downgraded the profitability of Arctic exploration and delivery to US markets. Arctic expansion is linked to international market performance.

· Majority of Arctic marine resources (e.g. oil, gas, fish) are within the EEZs of Arctic coastal states. Exploitation and management measures are primarily a matter of domestic concern and responsibility influenced by international agreements on environmental management.

· The advent of an ‘Arctic Treaty’ that removes sovereign power from Arctic littoral states is highly unlikely and is generally not supported. In addition, calls for a ‘zone of peace’ or treaty covering the central Arctic Ocean, while noble in nature, are in fact peripheral to the issues of resource management (see above point) that drive sustainability in the Arctic. A focus on effective implementation of the existing international framework and increased cooperation and coordination of environmental science and management will deliver more pragmatic outcomes.

· We can only speculate on the linkages between climate change, physical forcing on sea ice and industrial development. While changes in summer distribution have allowed minor navigational opportunities through the Northern Sea route, wholesale change (and commercially viable) shipping is yet to emerge. However the trend is that regional shipping is on the rise, particularly in the Barents Sea. This region, in proximity to the UK sphere of influence, opens opportunities (e.g. ports, trade) and raises security and environmental concerns (e.g. an oil spill). The driver for oil and gas development in the Barents has been increased exploration not sea ice reduction. This is in part driven by the recent border agreement between Russia and Norway opening up a significant area (175,000km2) for exploration.

What the consequences will be of unrestricted development in the Arctic

2.1 The retreat of sea ice has resulted in considerable speculation as to a corresponding increase in economic activity across the Arctic. Despite an increase in political activity and some breakthroughs in navigation and oil and gas, very little industrial expansion has actually occurred in the Arctic, with the majority occurring within the Barents Sea, a zone of geopolitical interest to the UK.

2.2 Suggestions that the Arctic is the focus of a multi-player "land grab" and a resource related "scramble" have been widespread since reports of the melting of Arctic summer sea ice and Russia’s planting of a flag on the sea floor in 2007. In this context, claims to maritime jurisdiction on the part of the Arctic coastal States have often been characterised as source of dispute and triggers for conflict. An alternative perspective is that the claims of the Arctic States are, in fact, predominantly consistent with international norms. All of the Arctic coastal states, save for the United States, are parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (however the US observes UNCLOS as customary international law) and all Arctic states, including the United States, have advanced maritime jurisdictional claims consistent with the UNCLOS, notably 12 nautical mile (nm) breadth territorial seas and 200nm EEZs.

2.3 In accordance with Article 76 of UNCLOS, the Arctic States have made, or are in the process of preparing, submissions related to the outer limits of the continental shelf seaward of the 200nm limits of claimed EEZs, to the relevant United Nations scientific body- the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. While such submissions have provoked considerable interest, they are also consistent with UNCLOS the agreed international norm for marine jurisdictional law and order.

2.4 Thus, while the Arctic is not free of maritime jurisdictional disputes, it can be argued, however, that the Arctic is subject to fewer disputes than elsewhere. Suggestions that the Arctic littoral States are engaged in a form of ‘land grab’ seem misplaced. In fact the opposite seems to be happening - longstanding maritime boundary disputes are capable of resolution. Of note in this context is the resolution, through a treaty on the delimitation of a maritime boundary, of Norway and Russia’s longstanding dispute over the Barents Sea, an issue that has been unresolved for 40 years, Through the agreement, signed on April 27, 2010, the two sides agreed to divide up an overlapping area of approximately 175,000km2.

2.5 While coastal states are engaged in a race of sorts to gather the scientific information, all are doing so in accordance with the terms of UNCLOS. The threats from ‘unrestricted development’ in reality stem from the national capacity to manage resource exploitation in line with a range of international commitments and in line with global strategies for sustainable development. There is considerable variation between different States in terms of ratification of international agreements and the financial, technical or political capacity to implement a range of agreements such as those presented by OSPAR, the Convention on Biodiversity (e.g. the ecosystem approach to management) or the International Maritime Organisation. There are significant gaps within in each regime that can threaten Arctic biodiversity (a good example is the lack of knowledge of benthic habitat distribution in the Arctic or the patchy implementation of the Ballast Water convention under the IMO).This is where the UK can play a significant role in ensuring knowledge transfer and capacity building in terms of scientific monitoring, technological innovation, and the linking of science to policy through practical means of delivering the ecosystem approach.

2.6 While the rapid expansion of industrial activity is open to debate, there is no doubt that increasing activity is occurring at a more measured pace. This activity requires a coordinated, science based ecosystem approach, not one based on a ‘race to the bottom’. For example, pan-Arctic guidelines on oil spill prevention are immature, and the safety basis of polar shipping, the Polar Code, is a voluntary mechanism within the IMO (but is on the path to being mandatory). A considerable amount of work on coordination and building support for management across borders is needed, and the UK can play a role in facilitating technological transfer, science and knowledge to its Arctic partners and actively through the Arctic Council and its relevant working groups (PAME, AMAP, CAFF etc)

How Arctic energy reserves might impact on UK energy security and policy

2.7 Rather than ‘unrestricted development’, it appears that at least in terms of oil and gas, development is proceeding in piecemeal fashion with minor expansion in key maritime sectors. There have been suggestions that the Arctic offers great potential in terms of seabed energy resources and even represents the "last great frontier" for oil and gas exploration. This notion has created much excitement, especially in the media, and tends to underpin the idea of a "race for resources". This perception of the Arctic as a major energy resource has, in turn, informed the thinking of policy-makers in all Arctic states.

2.8 Recent discoveries in the Barents Sea such as the Skrugard development are the only recent discoveries despite extensive exploration over the past decade. Skrugard is estimated to contain around 250 million barrels of recoverable oil equivalent and is located approximately 100 miles North of the Snovit gas development (along with the Goliat field are the only producing field in the Norwegian Barents region). The expectation is of further development particularly in the recently opened eastern Barents sector with Russia. Moreover, reports such as the USGS assessment specify in oil and gas resources rather than recoverable reserves. This is an important distinction. Even if an optimistic estimated recovery rate of 35% of oil reserves translating to proven reserves (rather than the industry "rule of thumb" of 10% for frontier provinces) the USGS’s figure of 90 billion barrels of oil rapidly scales down to potential reserves of 31.5 billion barrels. When it is considered that global consumption of conventional oil totalled approximately 26.9 billion barrels in 2010 (approximately 87 million barrels per day) alone, the potential significance of Arctic oil in global context is thrown into stark relief.

2.9 In the context above, while oil and gas exploration may not be the el dorado as painted by the press, significant finds have and will occur and these will be of interest to the UK in terms of energy security. It should also be specified that while increasing oil and gas discoveries represents a potential level of security for UK supply, the debate over energy independence and green energy production is central to the Arctic debate particularly in the context of increasing climate change. The UK should work through multilateral fora to ensure that a balanced view of energy development unfolds in the region, acknowledging that further carbon intensive development in oil and gas will increase the severity of climate change, which ironically, is at its most intensive in the polar regions.

How new Arctic shipping routes and fishing grounds might affect UK maritime and fisheries policy

3.1 Conventional wisdom suggests that as the Arctic warms, so sea ice coverage will be reduced and thus the seasonal Arctic navigational "window" will expand. A key finding of the ACIA report was that "reduced sea ice is likely to increase maritime transport and access to resources." This scenario has stirred long-standing, but also long-dormant, dreams of the opening of shipping routes between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans by way of the Arctic: namely the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route (formerly known as the Northeast Passage).

3.2 Northwest Passage offers a 9,000km (4,860nm) distance saving over the route between Europe and Asia via the Panama Canal and a 17,000km (9,180nm) saving as compared with the Cape Horn route. Navigation traffic in the Arctic is clearly on the rise, led by increasing instances of "adventure cruising" in Arctic waters, increased support traffic for oil and gas developments on the periphery of the Arctic, and to some extent from the pursuit of migrating stocks by fishing fleets.

3.3 Opening up of Arctic sea lanes and sea borne trade patterns have been encouraged by recent commercial transits of the Northern Sea Route. For example, two heavy lift vessels of Germany’s Beluga shipping group, the Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight successfully completed what was billed as the first commercial transit of the Northern Sea Route (sailing from Pusan in Korea to Hamburg in Germany) between July and September 2009. Whilst these vessels were relatively small 2010 saw the passage of the SCF Baltica, being the first high-tonnage tanker through the Northern Sea Route. The Baltica departed Murmansk on 14 August 2010 and arrived in Ningbo, China on September 6, 2010 carrying a cargo of 70,000 tonnes of gas condensate. The 22-day voyage was estimated to be twice as fast as would be expected on the alternative route via the Suez Canal.

3.4 Despite the excitement caused by these voyages, there exist strong reasons to doubt the viability of such routes for large-scale, regular transportation in the near-term. The first and most obvious factor that mitigates against the use of the Northwest Passage for regular inter-oceanic transits is that, while the waterway in question may be ice-free at the end of the Arctic summer, the Arctic navigational "window" is still narrow. For much of the year, and year-round in the event of a cold summer, ice is likely to remain a key factor and a threat to safety of navigation. The hazardous nature of navigation in the Arctic will necessarily have implications in terms of operating costs, both as a result of the need to use ice-strengthened vessels with ice-breaker support in some cases and potentially vast increases in insurance costs.

3.5 Nevertheless, it is clear that Arctic navigation is on the rise and the opportunities offered by Arctic sea lanes are highly likely to be investigated in the future. Thus, even though significant challenges remain great potential does exist. Increasing shipping activity in the Arctic has prompted efforts on the part of littoral States, especially Russia and Canada, to exert more control over navigation, largely on environmental grounds, which, in turn, has sharpened already existing disputes with States such as the United States over navigational freedoms.

3.6 As a key player in international maritime fora (i.e. UNCLOS and the IMO) the UK will have an influential role in driving shipping safety and standards in the Arctic. The emergence of a mandatory Polar Code will be important for ship safety and may offer opportunities for the UK ship building industry, but it does not cover all of the polar marine safety and environmental protection issues. Some issues must be addressed in other conventions such as MARPOL. In addition Arctic specific issues are not included in the ballast water convention and other conventions. Considerable effort by the Arctic states, supported by influential maritime states such as the UK, in the IMO and its related instruments such as MARPOL will be essential to ensure safety and minimise environmental impact.

How the Government might use its place on the Arctic Council to influence resource exploitation and steer development in the region a more sustainable path. And what other opportunities exist for the UK to influence politics in the region to ensure sustainable development of the region

4.1 As a permanent observer to the Arctic Council the UK has an important role to play in building partnerships, knowledge transfer, responsible development and environmental protection. It is a respected player but if it is to build influence, more resources will be required for it to participate in various aspects of the Arctic Council. Traditionally the UK view has been to look south to the Antarctic, and while this should continue, the Arctic is of critical strategic importance to the UK.

4.2 Through its involvement in NATO and its relationship with individual states the UK will remain committed to various alliances in the context of ensuring a safe and sustainable region. There is scope, subject to increased investment in diplomatic and scientific engagement, a potential role for the UK to act as an ‘honest broker’ in Arctic affairs. This could occur in several ways, via the EU where the UK has substantial investment and expertise in Arctic affairs (and in the context that the EU is not a member of the Arctic Council); and in building the UKs influence and partnership with other non Arctic States. For example, China is increasingly active in the Arctic and will considerably influence the direction of Arctic navigation and energy development. However, due to frosty relations with Norway over the Nobel Peace Prize, it has not been able to enter the Arctic Council as a permanent observer. There is clearly a role for the UK in discussing Arctic affairs with China and building a productive and collaborative relationship through scientific, diplomatic and knowledge exchange.

4.3 The UK has an important future role to play in the region through its geopolitical position; its reliance on imported energy and food resources; its maritime strength; its role in the EU; and relations with Arctic and non-Arctic states. Increasing the UK Arctic capability in terms of environmental protection requires a clear policy commitment and resources above and beyond the current approach if it hopes to remain, and increase, its influence in Arctic affairs.

The Scottish Marine Institute and Arctic Research

5.1 SAMS undertakes interdisciplinary research projects exploring all aspects of the Arctic marine environment and is involved in a variety of policy debates and knowledge transfer. Areas of expertise include:

· Sea ice physics

· Physical oceanography of arctic seas

· Palaeo-oceanography of arctic seas

· Pelagic ecology

· Benthic ecology and biogeochemistry

· Pollution in the Arctic

· High latitude technologies for measurement, monitoring and data transfer

· Engagement in policy and governance of the Arctic

5.2 The Scottish Marine Institute is committed to exploring the policy issues that surround integrated oceans management in the Arctic. This includes research and teaching in fisheries, energy, shipping, conservation and socio-economic impacts. Our scientists in the Centre for Sustainable Coasts research on the management and international governance of polar environments under marine resources, and human impacts in the Arctic. Improved understanding of the complex international and national regimes that govern the Arctic is necessary to prepare for the future challenges brought about by pressures such as climate change. Scientific and policy research aims to contribute to UK and international policy debates in the region and improve systems of governance and international cooperation.

Advisory committees

5.3 Several members of our staff are active on Arctic consultative, advisory and policy boards and committees, e.g.

· Membership of NERC Polar Science Working Group

· Membership of the International Arctic Science Committee

· Membership of the Arctic Social Science Network

· Chair of the Data Buoy Cooperation Panel which instigated the International Arctic Buoy Program

· Contributor to Arctic Ocean Sciences Board

· Working Group on AUV Operations in the Polar Oceans 

· Scientific Ice Expedition (SCICEX) Science Advisory Committee

· Evidence to the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee - Investigating the Oceans

Figure 1. Arctic Sea Ice Extent 2007-2011

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Centre (

10 February 2012


Prepared 24th February 2012