Canada and Russia are leading the stampede for a wealth of oil and gas exposed as climate change melts the Arctic sea-ice.

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Russia last week planted a flag on the Arctic seabed while the Canadian Prime Minister announced $57 million plans to establish military control over a key future Arctic shipping route, in symbolic moves to seize previously inaccessible Arctic fossil fuel reserves.

The land grab kicked off when the Russian press reported that a research submarine had planted a flag on the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,800 km underwater mountain range, which may hold millions of barrels of oil. The main aim of the 8-day expedition was to strengthen Russian territorial claims over the ridge, which they claim forms part of Russia’s continental shelf. 

Following up the story, news agency Reuters had a sinking feeling when a 13-year old Finish boy discovered that their footage of submarines planting the flag was a fake – they had incorrectly captioned images from 1997 film Titanic.

Late last week, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded to the controversial Russian expedition by announcing plans for military bases on the northern tip of Baffin Island and on the shores of the disputed Northwest Passage, predicted to be an important shipping route as the Arctic sea ice melts.

Perhaps 25% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas lies below the Arctic seabed. As the Arctic sea ice retreats due to climate change and petrol prices rise, exploiting these fossil fuel reserves – the cause of global warming - is now economically viable. BP and Russian state oil company, Rosneft, have joined forces to bid to prospect for oil. The Arctic has become geopolitical hot property.

A little known UN body, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, will determine the future of the Arctic, according to Robert Volterra, a partner at the law firm Latham and Watkins. The commission is responsible for determining how much of the Arctic seabed can be exploited for oil and gas exploration by the five countries – Canada, Russia, the US, Denmark and Norway – making claims over the area.

This grab for Arctic oil comes at a time when leaked Government reports have revealed the UK Government expects to miss its EU targets for 20% energy from renewables by 2020. Scientists including Josefino Comiso, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, have predicted that climate change will cause the Arctic to be completely ice-free in summer by the end of the century. 

This will have profound effects on wildlife, ocean circulation and global climate. Scientists believe sea-ice may be instrumental in forming the Gulf Stream, the ocean current that warms the west coast of Britain. Rainfall over parts of Europe and the western United States may also be affected. Polar bears depend on sea-ice to reach and hunt seals, and face starvation.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist August 2007