The new frontier
The Arctic has frequently been referred to as the final frontier on Earth. It has been a region that has famously been held as inaccessible and dangerous. But this has been changing for some time. The ice is melting and the world powers are already circling to see what part of this no man's land they can secure for their interests. From a strategic and economic perspective, the struggle to dominate the Arctic will be a significant one. Russia has been investing in this region for quite some time. It owns the world's largest fleet of icebreakers, some of which are even nuclear powered. It has been planting flags and spending billions in setting up the necessary equipment to exploit untapped resource nodes. By some estimates, the Arctic Ocean, a mere three per cent of the planet's surface, holds as much as 22 per cent of the Earth's oil and natural gas resources as well as vast quantities of other minerals. While considerations of climate change and sustainability may give some countries a pause before the rush to exploit the region, it is unlikely to last long and not all countries will be willing to hold back urgent economic interests for the sake of the polar bears. As such, Russia has preempted much of this rush by not only investing in infrastructure that would allow it to exploit the region economically but also for military bases and now, in a dedicated climate monitoring satellite that will allow Moscow a more complete bird's eye view of the Arctic. This launch is scheduled to be followed up by the launch of a similar satellite in 2023 which will allow 24/7 monitoring of the region. Both satellites are set to take a highly elliptical orbit that will allow more continuous coverage of the region in question as compared to the typical satellite path which travels over the equator. On the face of it, Russia doesn't have to come out and admit any kind of obvious strategic interests in launching such satellites. Roscosmos has stated that the satellites will be able to re-transmit distress signals from ships, aircraft and people who get stranded in the remote reaches of the Arctic. But the point remains that in this new era, as was the case before, information is key for any military or economic endeavour and having 24/7 coverage of the region is an undeniable advantage. The race to Arctic domination has many potential rewards along the way that goes beyond mere resource and strategic clout. The opening up of various new Arctic passages will significantly alter the state of trading routes. Estimates say that the new routes could cut travel distance between Europe and Asia by as much as 40 per cent. While Russia and Canada are leading in making claims over such routes, distant powers like China are not far behind. This opening up of trade routes will also create a host of new opportunities for other sectors like fishing and tourism to expand as well. For the territory for Greenland which gains a substantial portion of its revenue through fishing and tourism, this will be particularly significant. But this new race, regardless of how it turns out, will have significant consequences for the region as well. As the Arctic competition heats up and the area is saturated with exploitative activity, there is little doubt that the region will suffer from it. Rising water levels, native wild species going extinct, etc., are all likely near-term outcomes. And the thing is, this isn't exactly easy to stop. Saving the Arctic will involve massive cost and coordinated international effort. Unfortunately, it may be easier, quicker and more profitable to simply straight up exploit it while ignoring climate change science.