The great Arctic Ocean polar ice cap is already melting. The Arctic Ocean could be navigable year-round within decades. The rate of melting of the ice cap, scientists say, is actually accelerating. This may completely transform the strategic resource map of the world.
For the seabed of the arctic, especially the continental shelf north of Russia, is believed to be a fresh treasure trove of oil, natural gas and precious minerals. They were all inaccessible throughout history because the severe cold weather and the great ice cap made geological prospecting, let alone extraction, virtually impossible. But thanks to global warming, that is changing fast.
The Russian government takes the prospect of an energy and mineral bonanza beneath the melting arctic ice extremely seriously. As Ariel Cohen and Lajos Szaszdi wrote for UPI on Dec. 1, 2008: "Russia recognizes the multifaceted potential of the arctic and is moving rapidly to assert its national interests. Moscow has submitted a claim to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea to an area of 460,000 square miles -- the size of Germany, France and Italy combined."
They continued, "The Kremlin is (also) pursuing its interests by projecting military power into the region."
As we have documented repeatedly in our coverage at UPI, Russian President Vladimir Putin, before he moved sideways to become prime minister last year, in 2007 authorized the resumption of long-range strategic bomber patrols over the Arctic Ocean for the first time since the Cold War.
The slow-flying but long-endurance Tupolev Tu-95 Bear turboprop-powered bombers have exceptional range, and their relatively low fuel consumption allows them to stay aloft for unusually extended periods of time. This makes them ideal as "show the flag" aircraft to send the signal of effective Russian military presence over the arctic extremely cost-effectively.
The Russian air force also has sent its most formidable, prestigious and expensive aircraft, the incomparable Tupolev Tu-160 White Swan (NATO designation Blackjack) on these arctic patrols as a further demonstration of how serious it is about enforcing its rights in the region.
Cohen and Szaszdi noted: "Patrolling Russian bombers penetrated the 12-mile air defense identification zone surrounding Alaska 18 times during 2007. Since August 2007, the Russian air force has flown more than 90 missions over the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans."
They also reported that on July 14, 2008, the Russian navy announced its fleet had "resumed a warship presence in the Arctic." Russia refuses to recognize Norway's right to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone around the Spitsbergen archipelago that is under Norwegian sovereignty. Russia deployed an anti-submarine warfare destroyer followed by a guided-missile cruiser armed with 16 long-range anti-ship cruise missiles designed to destroy aircraft carriers.
No one expects a nuclear war to break out over the arctic. But increasingly large-scale shows of force by Russia, and by NATO member states in retaliation, look likely. Territorial land grabs should not be ruled out in the future. Whenever really valuable strategic resources -- especially oil and gas -- are found around the world, great power collisions, intrigues, conflicts by proxy and other maneuvers always follow.
Global warming has brought these mischievous and often dangerous games to the previously peaceful arctic.