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Arctic Ocean

Summary

The Arctic Glacial Ocean is a vast marine area centred on the North Pole. With its adjacent seas, it borders the northern coasts of Europe, Asia and America. Its main distinctive feature is that it is mostly covered by sheets of ice. But this glacial cover is gradually decreasing due to climate change.

The reduction of pack ice and the rising water temperatures are bringing about profound changes in the ecosystem and disrupting the entire marine food chain, including plankton, large carnivores and all fishery resources. This development raises concern among environmentalists and indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the reduction of the ice sheets is opening the way to new opportunities for economic operations, especially the extraction of oil and gas, exposing this already very fragile environment to new risks.

Map of the Arctic Ocean.

Population

Due to climatic conditions, the arctic shores are sparsely populated, with a total of about 4 million inhabitants. Among them, we find around 600 000 indigenous people, mainly Inuits (Greenland, Canada and Alaska), but also other peoples such as the Saamis (about 55 000 people) who live in northern Norway, Sweden and Finland and the Russian peninsula of Kola.

Few large towns have developed in the region. The only existing towns are found in Russia - Arkhangelsk (350 000 inhabitants), Murmansk (over 300 000), Norilsk (130 000), Vorkouta (75 000) - and in Norway - Trondheim (165 000) and Tromsø (60 000). In the rest of Siberia, as in Canada, Greenland and Alaska, we only find small agglomerations of less than 5 000 inhabitants.

Few large towns have developed in the region. The only existing towns are found in Russia - Arkhangelsk (350 000 inhabitants), Murmansk (over 300 000), Norilsk (130 000), Vorkouta (75 000) - and in Norway - Trondheim (165 000) and Tromsø (60 000). In the rest of Siberia, as in Canada, Greenland and Alaska, we only find small agglomerations of less than 5 000 inhabitants.

Exploitation of resources

Until recent years, the sector dominating the maritime economy was fishing.

The European countries practice deep-sea fishing in the seas of Norway, Greenland, Barents Sea and to a smaller extent in the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay. This activity is particularly important for Iceland, Norway and Denmark. The catches represent an annual total of 2.3 million tonnes for European countries and Russia (2007). The main species are cod, haddock, black halibut and herring. The indigenous peoples engage primarily in small-scale coastal fishing.
For the other natural resources, coastal mining resources (nickel and copper among others) are exploited by Russia and off-shore hydrocarbons (natural gas and oil) are extracted by Russia in the Barents Sea and Kara Sea, by the United States in Alaska, by Canada in the Mackenzie Estuary and the Davis Strait, and by Norway off its north coast and in the Barents Sea.

The European countries practice deep-sea fishing in the seas of Norway, Greenland, Barents Sea and to a smaller extent in the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay. This activity is particularly important for Iceland, Norway and Denmark. The catches represent an annual total of 2.3 million tonnes for European countries and Russia (2007). The main species are cod, haddock, black halibut and herring. The indigenous peoples engage primarily in small-scale coastal fishing.
For the other natural resources, coastal mining resources (nickel and copper among others) are exploited by Russia and off-shore hydrocarbons (natural gas and oil) are extracted by Russia in the Barents Sea and Kara Sea, by the United States in Alaska, by Canada in the Mackenzie Estuary and the Davis Strait, and by Norway off its north coast and in the Barents Sea.

Transport of goods

Maritime traffic is currently minor or exploratory off the coast of Canada (Northwest Passage), but could increase with the reduction of pack ice. Traffic is more established and more developed off the coast of Russia (Northeast Passage) where the Northern Sea Route is maintained by a fleet of nuclear-powered ice-breakers to transport mining products and link coastal towns.

Table: Arctic ports (Europe and Russia)

General traffic

(millions of tonnes)

Major component

Major ports

Narvik (Norway) (1)

Murmansk(Russia) (2)

16.5

14.4

Iron ore

Coal

Secondary ports

Rana (Norway) (1)

Dudinka (Russia)

Reykjavik (Iceland) (3)

Bronoy (Norway) (1)

Trondheim (Norway) (1)

Arkhangelsk (Russia) (4)

Grundartangi (Iceland) (3)

Tromsø (Norway) (1)

3.7

3.5

2.3

1.9

1.9

1.5

1.1

1

Nickel (+ copper and cobalt)

All freight

All freight

Wood and by-products, Metals

Aluminium

(1) 2007 – Source: Statistik Sentralbyra (Statistics Norway)

(2) ISEMAR - Institut Supérieur d’Economie Maritime (Applied Research Centre in Maritime Economics)

(3) 2006 – Source: Statistics Iceland

(4) Port of Arkhangelsk website

Tourism

Tourism has developed considerably in past years; around 1.5 million tourists visit the region each year as part of cruises.

Defence

There are numerous military bases in Russia, Alaska and Greenland and very recently in Canada. The largest bases are the Russian naval base of Murmansk and the American air bases of Thule in Greenland and Fairbanks in Alaska. The surveillance networks installed on the shores (in particular, regarding Europe, in Norway, Scotland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland) are still active.

Environment

The main cause for concern is climate change, which has brought about spectacular melting of the icecaps.

From 6.3 million km² in 2000, the icecaps shrank to 4.7 million km² in 2008 (surface area in the month of September). The warming waters and melting ice risk having a strong knock-on effect on the marine food chain and threaten polar diversity as well as the future of fishing activities.
There are also other environmental issues such as the various types of pollution carried from around the rest of the world by the marine and atmospheric currents (heavy metals, chemical products) or linked to mining activities and transport. It is also important to mention nuclear pollution caused by the burial of waste (Barents Sea and Kara Sea) and nuclear testing in the past.

From 6.3 million km² in 2000, the icecaps shrank to 4.7 million km² in 2008 (surface area in the month of September). The warming waters and melting ice risk having a strong knock-on effect on the marine food chain and threaten polar diversity as well as the future of fishing activities.
There are also other environmental issues such as the various types of pollution carried from around the rest of the world by the marine and atmospheric currents (heavy metals, chemical products) or linked to mining activities and transport. It is also important to mention nuclear pollution caused by the burial of waste (Barents Sea and Kara Sea) and nuclear testing in the past.

Research

International research is very active, particularly in submarine geology and geomorphology as well as in climatology and glaciology. In Europe, many research centres are working on the area: Norwegian (Svalbard), Icelandic, Danish, Finnish and Swedish, but also German (Bremerhaven, Kiel), Danish and British.

Governance

The exclusive economic zones of Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway, Iceland and Denmark (for Greenland) extend 200 nautical miles from the coasts. A vast high seas area remains, and some countries are calling for an extension of the continental shelf in parts of this area.

The only international institution dealing with the Arctic is the Arctic Council. Created in 1996, this advisory body is made up of representatives from the eight regional States and the peoples of the Arctic region. It aims to establish a dialogue between its members regarding strategic and environmental issues and the exploitation of natural resources.
The Arctic Ocean is partially concerned by the Convention for the protection of the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR), which covers the waters between the North Pole, the seas of Greenland and Norway, the seas surrounding the Svalbard Islands and Jan Mayen Island, and the waters off the coasts of Iceland and the Faroe Islands.
With regard to fisheries management, the international waters of the Arctic Ocean are partially covered by the North Atlantic organisations:

The only international institution dealing with the Arctic is the Arctic Council. Created in 1996, this advisory body is made up of representatives from the eight regional States and the peoples of the Arctic region. It aims to establish a dialogue between its members regarding strategic and environmental issues and the exploitation of natural resources.
The Arctic Ocean is partially concerned by the Convention for the protection of the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR), which covers the waters between the North Pole, the seas of Greenland and Norway, the seas surrounding the Svalbard Islands and Jan Mayen Island, and the waters off the coasts of Iceland and the Faroe Islands.
With regard to fisheries management, the international waters of the Arctic Ocean are partially covered by the North Atlantic organisations:

Physical data

The Arctic Ocean is a semi-closed space centred on the North Pole. According to different estimates, its surface occupies 9.5 to 14.1 million km². It has large openings towards the Northwest Atlantic (Sea of Norway, Denmark Strait and Davis Strait) and a narrower passage towards the North Pacific (Bering Strait).

Subjected to an extreme polar climate, over 47 % of its surface area (2008) is covered by an ice cap, a proportion which is currently in decline due to climate change. The average temperature of the water ranges from 0 to 10 °C, whereas its surface temperature is about -1.7 °C. The arctic continental shelf extends over roughly half the sea bed but it extends further off the Russian coast - where it covers almost all the coastal seas - than off the coast of Canada and Alaska, where the sea bed quickly drops deeper than 3 000 m. The salinity of the surface waters varies from 30 to 34 °/°°.

Subjected to an extreme polar climate, over 47 % of its surface area (2008) is covered by an ice cap, a proportion which is currently in decline due to climate change. The average temperature of the water ranges from 0 to 10 °C, whereas its surface temperature is about -1.7 °C. The arctic continental shelf extends over roughly half the sea bed but it extends further off the Russian coast - where it covers almost all the coastal seas - than off the coast of Canada and Alaska, where the sea bed quickly drops deeper than 3 000 m. The salinity of the surface waters varies from 30 to 34 °/°°.

History

The Inuits first settled in the Arctic region around 12 000 years BC. Europeans only arrived in the 11th century, when the Vikings discovered Greenland and the Russian merchants and trappers of Novgorod reached the arctic shores.

It was not until the 16th century that exploration became systematic: following the creation of the Russian State, a genuine stampede towards Siberia led to permanent settlements. In the wake of the Age of Discovery, European explorers such as Martin Frobisher, John Davis, William Baffin and Willem Barents entered the Arctic area in search of the Northeast and Northwest Passages. In the 17th century, the Danish and Swedish fought over the Nordic lands, but the latter opted to extend towards the Baltic Sea, leaving the north to Denmark which annexed Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Norway.
In the 19th century, the mechanisation of ships gave a new impetus to polar exploration. The Swede Adolf Nordenskjöld discovered the Northeast Passage in 1879. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen forced a way through the Northwest Passage in 1906, inaugurating the Arctic strategy of the newly independent Norway (1905). The country annexed the Svalbard archipelago in 1920 and Jan Mayen Island in 1921. Amundsen reached the North Pole in 1926. In 1935, the USSR inaugurated the Northern Maritime Route, but it was mainly the Cold War that sparked the strategic and economic interest in the Arctic. This was a time when military bases were developed along the coasts of Siberia, Greenland, Iceland and Alaska. It was also the era of populating strategies: the USSR developed deportation centres in order to exploit mining resources and Canada encouraged the Inuits to settle further north.

It was not until the 16th century that exploration became systematic: following the creation of the Russian State, a genuine stampede towards Siberia led to permanent settlements. In the wake of the Age of Discovery, European explorers such as Martin Frobisher, John Davis, William Baffin and Willem Barents entered the Arctic area in search of the Northeast and Northwest Passages. In the 17th century, the Danish and Swedish fought over the Nordic lands, but the latter opted to extend towards the Baltic Sea, leaving the north to Denmark which annexed Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Norway.
In the 19th century, the mechanisation of ships gave a new impetus to polar exploration. The Swede Adolf Nordenskjöld discovered the Northeast Passage in 1879. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen forced a way through the Northwest Passage in 1906, inaugurating the Arctic strategy of the newly independent Norway (1905). The country annexed the Svalbard archipelago in 1920 and Jan Mayen Island in 1921. Amundsen reached the North Pole in 1926. In 1935, the USSR inaugurated the Northern Maritime Route, but it was mainly the Cold War that sparked the strategic and economic interest in the Arctic. This was a time when military bases were developed along the coasts of Siberia, Greenland, Iceland and Alaska. It was also the era of populating strategies: the USSR developed deportation centres in order to exploit mining resources and Canada encouraged the Inuits to settle further north.

Bibliography

E. CANOBBIO, Atlas des Pôles - Régions polaires: questions sur un avenir incertain, Ed. Autrement, Paris, 2007.
C.COMTOIS & C.DENIS, Le potentiel de trafic maritime dans l'Arctique canadien in Séminaire Université de Laval - Changements climatiques et ouverture de l'Arctique: quels impacts stratégiques pour le Canada?, 17 November 2006.
I. FROLOV, Z. GUDKOVICH, V. RADIONOV, A. SHIROCHKOV & L. TIMOKHOV, The Arctic Basin: results from the Russian drifting stations, Springer & Praxis, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, Chichester, 2005.
R. HOWARD, The Arctic gold rush, the new race for tomorrow's natural resources, Continuum, London, New York, 2009
R. LABEVIERE & F. THUAL, La Bataille du Grand Nord a commencé..., Ed. Perrin, Paris, 2008.
F. LASSERE, Vers l'ouverture d'un "Passage du Nord-Ouest" stratégique ? in Le Monde Maritime, March-April 2008, pp 27-32.
People and politics of the Arctic, in Journal of Nordregio, December 2007, Vol. 7, Stockholm, 2007.
P. THOREZ, Sevmorput, la Route Maritime du Nord in Les transports maritimes dans la mondialisation, L'Harmattan, Paris, 2008.

E. CANOBBIO, Atlas des Pôles - Régions polaires: questions sur un avenir incertain, Ed. Autrement, Paris, 2007.
C.COMTOIS & C.DENIS, Le potentiel de trafic maritime dans l'Arctique canadien in Séminaire Université de Laval - Changements climatiques et ouverture de l'Arctique: quels impacts stratégiques pour le Canada?, 17 November 2006.
I. FROLOV, Z. GUDKOVICH, V. RADIONOV, A. SHIROCHKOV & L. TIMOKHOV, The Arctic Basin: results from the Russian drifting stations, Springer & Praxis, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, Chichester, 2005.
R. HOWARD, The Arctic gold rush, the new race for tomorrow's natural resources, Continuum, London, New York, 2009
R. LABEVIERE & F. THUAL, La Bataille du Grand Nord a commencé..., Ed. Perrin, Paris, 2008.
F. LASSERE, Vers l'ouverture d'un "Passage du Nord-Ouest" stratégique ? in Le Monde Maritime, March-April 2008, pp 27-32.
People and politics of the Arctic, in Journal of Nordregio, December 2007, Vol. 7, Stockholm, 2007.
P. THOREZ, Sevmorput, la Route Maritime du Nord in Les transports maritimes dans la mondialisation, L'Harmattan, Paris, 2008.

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