Melting of the Arctic ice and its geopolitical footprints


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: NSR

Mains level: Paper 2- Melting of Arctic ice cap and its geopolitical implications

Melting of the ice in the Arctic region has as much impact on the geopolitics as it has on the environment. The article explains in detail the geopolitics involved.

Melting of Arctic ice and its impact on climate

  • Arctic region is warming up twice as fast as the global average.
  • The ice cap is shrinking fast — since 1980, the volume of Arctic sea ice has declined by as much as 75 percent.
  • The loss of ice and the warming waters will affect sea levels, salinity levels, and current and precipitation patterns.
  • The Tundra is returning to the swamp, the permafrost is thawing, sudden storms are ravaging coastlines and wildfires are devastating interior Canada and Russia.
  • The rich biodiversity of the Arctic region is under serious threat.
  • These changes are making the survival of Arctic marine life, plants, and birds difficult while encouraging species from lower latitudes to move north.
  • The Arctic is also home to about 40 different indigenous groups, whose culture, economy, and way of life are in danger of being swept away.

Opportunities in the melting of the Arctic

  • The Northern Sea Route (NSR) which connects the North Atlantic to the North Pacific through a short polar arc was once not open for navigation.
  • The melting ice has now made it a reality and a trickle of commercial cargo vessels have been going through every summer since the last decade.
  • The opening of the Arctic presents huge commercial and economic opportunities, particularly in shipping, energy, fisheries, and mineral resources.
  • Oil and natural gas deposits, estimated to be 22 percent of the world’s unexplored resources, mostly in the Arctic ocean, will be open to access along with mineral deposits.

Challenges in exploiting opportunities

  • Navigation conditions are dangerous and restricted to the summer.
  • There is a lack of deep-water ports, a need for ice-breakers, a shortage of workers trained for polar conditions, and high insurance costs.
  • Mining and deep-sea drilling carry massive costs and environmental risks.
  • Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic is not a global common and there is no overarching treaty that governs it, only the UN Convention of Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
  • Large parts of it are under the sovereignty of the five littoral states — Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark (Greenland) and the US — and exploitation of the new resources is well within their rights.

Geopolitics of the Arctic

  • Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark have put in overlapping claims for extended continental shelves.
  • The US, not a party to UNCLOS, is unable to put in a formal claim but is under pressure to strengthen its Arctic presence.
  • For the present, Russia is the dominant power, with the longest Arctic coastline, half the Arctic population, and a full-fledged strategic policy.
  • Russia anticipates huge dividends from commercial traffic including through the use of its ports, pilots, and ice-breakers.
  • China, playing for economic advantage, has moved in fast, projecting the Polar Silk Road as an extension of the BRI, and has invested heavily in ports, energy, undersea infrastructure, and mining projects.

What are the concerns for India

  • India’s extensive coastline makes it vulnerable to the impact of Arctic warming on ocean currents, weather patterns, fisheries, and most importantly, our monsoon.
  • Scientific research in Arctic developments, in which India has a good record, will contribute to our understanding of climatic changes in the Third Pole — the Himalayas.
  • The strategic implications of an active China in the Arctic and it’s growing economic and strategic relationship with Russia are self-evident and need close monitoring.

Way forward

  • India has observer status in the Arctic Council, which is the predominant inter-governmental forum for cooperation on the environment and development (though not the security) aspects of the Arctic.
  • India should leverage its presence in Arctic Council for a strategic policy that encompassed economic, environmental, scientific, and political aspects.

Consider the question “Melting of the Arctic opens the door for geopolitical game in the region and India cannot be immune to its implications. In the context of this, examine the developments in the region and how it impacts India’s interests?”


India must strive to protect its interest and strive for strategic policy for the region.

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