Arctic: to whom does it belong, if not Russia?

However, together with Russia, other countries are claiming for “additional” areas of the Arctic Ocean. Back in December 2014, Denmark submitted an application for expanding the outer border of the shelf zone. There are complaints from Canada, the USA, Norway and even from countries that do not go to the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

The North becomes a coveted prize, which can bring huge wealth and complicate life with new problems. At the same time, the Arctic itself is changing so rapidly that plans and ideas, relevant several years ago, become meaningless before our eyes. Therefore, first of all, it needs to be studied and understood.

Eight states have their borders, continental shelves, and exclusive economic zones in the Arctic: Russia, Canada, the USA, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland. About 83 billion barrels (10 billion tons) of crude oil - mainly off the coast of Alaska. About 1, 550 billion cubic meters of natural gas - mainly along the Russian border. About 780 billion tons of coal, including more than 81 billion tons of coking coal.

Arctic: start

The paradox is that there is not even a single opinion where exactly the borders of the Arctic zone begin. It would seem logical to consider the Arctic Circle, that is, the 66th parallel, as such a boundary. However, it passes through the very north of Europe, but the southern part of Greenland, two-thirds of Alaska and almost all of Chukotka are located south of it and, it turns out, by this criterion they cannot be considered the Arctic.

Therefore, in the 1950s there was a proposal to consider the 60th northern parallel as the southern border of the Arctic. It passes through Magadan, in the south of Alaska, it touches the southernmost part of Greenland ... However, in Europe, cities such as Bergen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg ... are unlikely to be called polar. But if latitude cannot be considered a clear sign of belonging to the Arctic zone, we need additional criteria, and one of them is the average temperature in July.

In the Arctic, the temperature regime is of particular importance - for example, low temperatures limit the area of ​​cereal cultivation and the ability to conduct familiar farming. That is why a number of American and European scientists in the 1950s attributed almost a third of Norway, Finland, Karelia, the regions around the Hudson Bay in Canada and most of Siberia to the Arctic. However, the July isotherm at + 10 ° C wriggles very whimsically - in the Pacific Ocean it is squeezed out in a huge bubble to the south, up to the Aleutian Islands.

There are proposals on the border of the Arctic on the southern passage of the tundra to the forest-tundra and taiga - today it is not difficult to do this with images from space. The border can take into account other factors: illumination, weather discomfort, etc. - and the question about it is not at all idle. It is directly related to the registration of benefits and allowances associated with work in particularly difficult conditions, which are accepted from all the Nordic countries. As a result, different states use their own criteria to draw the borders of the Arctic. For example, in Russia, the connection with the Northern Sea Route is taken into account. The coast of the Arctic Ocean, no doubt, is already the Arctic.

Troubling shores

The coastline of the Arctic Ocean was formed, on a geological scale, literally "yesterday". This ocean is the youngest on the planet. There is an opinion that it can generally be considered a continuation of the Atlantic. The grandiose Mid-Atlantic ridge, starting as early as Antarctica, stretches right into the Arctic, where it is divided into separate "branches", such as the Gakkel ridge.

The Arctic Ocean is also distinguished by the fact that it has the largest shelf area: depths of up to 200 m occupy at least 40% of its entire area. From Eurasia, it is cut by flooded river valleys - from the Northern Dvina and Pechora in the west to the Indigirka and Kolyma in the east - which extend to a depth of almost 100 m. Apparently, in the past the level of the Arctic Ocean was much lower than now. It is believed that 5 million years ago it was smaller by as much as 300 m, after which it sharply gained a level and fell again later, about 11−12 thousand years ago, by 130 m.

Therefore, many lowland shores and the shallow waters of the Arctic Ocean are parts of the tundra that have already been flooded for centuries. They are composed of permafrost and are extremely unstable: they are sensitive to mechanical stresses and changes in temperature conditions. Their perspective is melting, which will be accompanied by the active release of gases, primarily methane.

Glacier Heritage

Methane will be released mainly during the destruction of gas hydrates - complexes of methane and water. They accumulated for many centuries during the slow decomposition of organics at great and cold depths, where the pressure exceeds 25 atm., And the temperature does not climb above zero. After the bottom rose, for some time they still remained stable, but heating sooner or later leads to their decay. Therefore, today the stability of the coasts and coastal zones of the Arctic Ocean is in great question.

Several years ago, methane emissions were seen at the bottom of the East Siberian shelf. Studies have shown that gas hydrates lying there are in a “borderline state”. Enough bottom water to heat less than a degree, as methane begins to be released into the atmosphere much more intensively. But its "greenhouse potential" is estimated to be ten times higher than that of carbon dioxide.

Fortunately, the Arctic also has other shores - reliable, rocky massifs - the shores of Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula, Taimyr and Chukotka, the islands of Canada and Greenland ... Well, the most controversial place in the north can be called Iceland, the country of ice and fire, the only large island through which passes the rift ridge and which is located on two tectonic plates.

Treasures of the North

How many useful resources in the Arctic - for example, hydrocarbons? No one has exact numbers, and the scatter in the estimates is significant. For example, American geologists estimate that there are approximately 400 billion barrels of oil equivalent, or 20% of all technically recoverable reserves, beyond the Arctic Circle (including offshore and onshore reserves).

However, these resources of the Arctic zone are not evenly distributed. Alaska has more oil off the coast, while Russia has the lion's share of northern natural gas reserves. It is not surprising that the United States is the world leader in oil production on the Arctic shelf (in the Beaufort Sea), and Russia has just begun work in the Pechora Sea, at the Prirazlomnoye field. But on land, in the circumpolar zone of Western Siberia, both oil and gas are successfully extracted - about 90% of all natural gas production in Russia and about 80% of oil are concentrated here.

In addition to hydrocarbons, on the shelf (especially in the beds of the flooded valleys of ancient rivers), extensive deposits of solid minerals are possible, including such coveted ones as diamonds and gold. The question is where these deposits are located, that is, who and on what grounds can conduct their exploration and development.

Difficulties of definitions

The legal affiliation of mineral resources on the Arctic shelf is determined by a number of international conventions. According to Article 76 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the continental shelf of a coastal state includes the seabed and subsoil, extending beyond its territorial waters "throughout the natural extension of its land territory to the outer border of the underwater margin of the mainland."

An almost strictly geological definition included in a legal document is disclosed in paragraphs 4–6 of this article, which describes the procedure for establishing the underwater border of the continents. The key are depth measurements, which allow you to determine the angle of inclination and the thickness of the continental plateau, going to the ocean floor. To draw a new boundary somewhere, we must prove that the layer of sedimentary rocks here, without interruption, binds to our continent and that its thickness is at least 1% of the distance to the foot of the slope.

To obtain detailed geological data, complex studies are required, including echolocation, underwater seismic-acoustic profiling, bottom sampling, and basic drilling ... It was the lack of such data that served earlier, in 2001, the basis for rejecting the first Russian application to change the boundaries of its shelf. However, this year, scientists believe that rigorous evidence has already been collected.

Underwater prize

The main arguments of Russia are that the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges, as well as the Alpha and Chukotsky Rises, are the remains of the ancient continental crust and have a direct “kinship” with the adjacent shelf. But what land is closer to these ridges? The Danes and Canadians believe that the Lomonosov Ridge is more likely connected with Greenland (Danes) and Ellesmere Land (Canadians). The question of the presence of large faults in it remains open, because the borders of the shelf of coastal countries can only be drawn up to them.

However, even if the arguments of Russia are accepted, this does not mean the end of the game. The UN does not draw borders: if a special commission decides that the Russian side has collected all the evidence and correctly executed it, it will give a recommendation for negotiations with neighboring countries, which also concern this issue. It is possible that they will last a very long time. However, today's competitors may also make unexpected agreements and alliances: there are too many “outsiders” who want to come to the Arctic.

In the central part of the Arctic Ocean, deep-sea basins are located, which, in principle, cannot be in anyone's economic zone. The largest of them are the Canadian Basin, as well as the basins of Nansen, Amudensen and Makarov, where depths can exceed 5 km. Here, they can safely operate not only countries that have access to the Arctic coast, but generally anyone else. It is no coincidence that China, which acquired an icebreaker and conducts its own polar expeditions, is developing a large amount of research work.

Shelf price

No one doubted that “one should go offshore” several years ago. The oil treasury excited the minds of not only the northern countries - even India, China, Japan, Korea and Singapore dreamed of at least subcontracting participation in the inevitable section of the “Arctic pie”. However, the fall in oil prices in 2014 somewhat cooled the head.

“Technically recoverable” reserves do not mean commercially viable. With the cost of oil above a certain level, its production becomes simply unprofitable. If the seabed soils are weak, gas saturated, and the region is seismic, then the cost of developing such a deposit will skyrocket. Therefore, onshore deposits do not look much more reliable business. An example of such a successful place is the Yamal Peninsula, which is being introduced into the Kara Sea and serves as a natural platform for gas production.

By the way, there is another little-known hydrocarbon reserve in this region - the Bazhenov Formation. This is a pack of ancient sediments with a thickness of 20 to 60 m, formed on the verge of the Jurassic period, and these are the largest reserves of “shale oil” in the world. The Bazhenov Formation has been known since the late 1960s, although for a long time it did not cause interest: there were enough traditional deposits around. However, the shale boom in the United States made Russia take a closer look at its reserves, the more so located so well, in the already developed territories with all the necessary infrastructure.

Other values

The development of the Arctic is not necessarily related to the pursuit of oil. For some countries, the north is a new chance to reduce its dependence on hydrocarbons. After all, there are concentrated grandiose reserves of metallic ores - ferrous, non-ferrous, rare, rare-earth and precious. Indium and platinum, palladium and niobium, chromium, manganese, rhenium, tungsten, molybdenum, lithium, nickel, copper - modern technology needs the entire periodic table, and in the mountains of the Subpolar region all this is. Historically, the development of polar wealth began in Northern Europe. In the middle of the XVII century, in the north of Sweden, iron ore of the highest quality was discovered. At the end of the 17th century, miners reached the Kola Peninsula, where they began to mine copper ore and silver. And in 1868, gold was discovered in the Ivaloyoki River Valley in Lapland. This started the “gold rush”, during which the traditions of Finnish prospectors were formed. They were among the pioneers who, several decades later, went to Klondike.

Russian geologists spoke about the huge mineral wealth of the Kola Peninsula, Taimyr, and Eastern Siberia at the beginning of the 20th century. Nikolay Urvantsev, sent at the mouth of the Yenisei to search for coal deposits, discovered platinum, nickel, copper - the magnificent Norilsk complex of deposits. In the 1920s, Alexander Fersman discovered the richest deposits of copper-nickel ores and apatites of the Kola Peninsula. The expeditions of Yuri Bilibin and Valentin Tsaregradsky gave the country gold in Kolyma.

A completely unique group of Tomtor deposits east of Taimyr. Opened in 1959, the massif did not cause much interest for a long time, until - at the very end of the 1980s - it became clear that it was hiding real wealth. Niobium, yttrium, scandium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, samarium, europium, titanium - Tomtor is among the largest ore-bearing provinces in the world.

The huge pantry of Greenland is also being revealed little by little. Already today, Marmoriliyka deposits of lead-zinc ores are exploited on the island, where 10% of all world reserves of these metals are deposited. Uranium and chromium are mined here, they are preparing for the development of molybdenum ... The Arctic is a huge mineral reserve that can play a key role in the development of a new type of economy and rid mankind of oil dependence. Unless, of course, nature gives us time.

Warm future

The Arctic plays a huge role in our lives, even if we ourselves do not notice it. To a certain extent, it is a “weather kitchen”: interacting with air currents from subtropical latitudes, it forms the climate of the entire temperate zone. It is from here that giant glaciers descend with enviable constancy, sweeping away everything in its path ...

At the same time, the Arctic remains surprisingly vulnerable. Changing the temperature by only one or two degrees changes everything here. In the polar regions, “plus or minus one” is the conservation or disappearance of snow, ice, and permafrost. This is life or death for many species of plants and animals, adapted by evolution to living in the cold. The nature of the Arctic is extremely fragile; the connections of its ecosystems are complex and poorly predictable. The Arctic is still largely Terra Incognita. Where else can you still make classic geographical discoveries? But no later than in the summer of 2015, the Russian expedition to the archipelagos of Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya discovered nine islands up to 2 km in size, which were not on the most modern maps, and one previously known bay turned out to be a strait ... It seems that we will adjust for a long time maps of the north and even longer - to put the icons of new mineral deposits.

The article “The Arctic of Discord and Hope” was published in the journal Popular Mechanics (No. 1, January 2016).


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