As a result of climate change, there’s 40 per cent less ice at the North Pole than 30 years ago. The accessibility of this area has therefore increased and the countries around the Arctic Ocean are busy setting out their territorial claims so that they can exploit the expected huge oil and gas fields there. This is why Louwrens Hacquebord, Director of the Arctic Centre of the University of Groningen, thinks that an international treaty must be signed as soon as possible to ensure that this unique ecosystem is protected.
On 1 March 2009, the fourth International Polar Year will come to an end. According to Hacquebord, the Polar Year has already resulted in a wealth of information. ‘We know now that the polar ice is melting much faster than predicted.’ This is an alarming fact, because melting ice means that the huge oil and gas fields in the Arctic region will soon be accessible for exploitation. In addition, it may soon also be possible to use the Arctic Ocean as a sea route.
Hacquebord thinks that it is high time to take measures to protect the Arctic Ocean. ‘It’s a unique ecosystem that can only be preserved by protecting it. It is an extremely vulnerable region. The Arctic Ocean, for example, contains lots of phytoplankton and zooplankton – small organisms that are the main food of many higher species that live in the sea and on land. This important food source is currently under pressure because the ice is melting. If drilling and shipping is going to start here too, there won’t be much left of that ecosystem. And if an oil tanker were to sink in this region, the consequences would be disastrous. Life in the Arctic is completely dependent on the plankton areas in the ocean. If these areas vanish, the polar bears, whales, seals and walruses will vanish too. This is why protecting the region is much more important than regional interests.’
According to Hacquebord, what is needed is an international treaty with agreements stating that exploitation of the natural resources in the Arctic Ocean will only be permitted under extremely strict conditions. ‘Such a treaty should permit any country access to conduct scientific research in the North Pole region, just as the Antarctic treaty does. These countries would then manage the region jointly. It’s a region that belongs to us all.’ It will not be easy to convince the five Arctic coastal states (United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark) of this, admits Hacquebord. All of these countries, with the exception of Norway, are currently laying claim to part of the Arctic Ocean. A treaty would mean that they would have to relinquish those claims. The five coastal states have already indicated that they want to manage the area themselves under UNCLOS – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – without any outside interference. ‘But the United States has never ratified UNCLOS, and it was never intended to protect nature. So how are they going to use it to protect the plankton areas? Who is going to ensure compliance? Why should other countries obey any rules they may come up with? How reliable is Russia in all this? This is why we need an international treaty.’
Russia in particular will have problems with an international treaty to protect the Arctic Ocean, suspects Hacquebord. ‘We’ll have to wait and see – people thought the same in the 1950s when a similar treaty was proposed to protect the South Pole. Even though we were then in the middle of the Cold War, Russia signed the treaty.’ He thinks that the Netherlands could play an important role in the creation of such a treaty. ‘We have a long tradition in the field of international law. In addition, we have no territorial claims there. What we do have, though, is a historical link with the area. A small country like the Netherlands would be well suited to play a mediating role and bring the parties together.’
In addition to protecting the ecosystem, a treaty would also ensure more global stability and security. Hacquebord: ‘The various claims by the coastal states overlap each other. For example, Russia and Norway are disagreeing about the area around Spitsbergen.’ Canada, the United States and Denmark are also disputing each other’s border regions. ‘The huge reserves of oil and gas (13 and 30 per cent of the potential global supply, respectively) will inevitably lead to major conflicts without a treaty. Just look at what’s happening in the Middle East.’
Louwrens Hacquebord is Professor of Arctic and Antarctic Studies and Director of the Arctic Centre of the University of Groningen. He studied Physical Geography at the University of Utrecht and Archaeology at the University of Groningen. He represents the Netherlands on the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring Assessment Programme, the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), whose secretariat is in Potsdam, Germany, and is a member of the National IPY Committee.
Prof. Louwrens Hacquebord
See also: current affairs programme Buitenhof De smeltende ijskappen (in Dutch)
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