In recent times, the phrase ‘global warming’ – or its somewhat broader placeholder, ‘climate change’ – has been on everyone’s minds. Whether you have actively engaged with the subject or you have just briefly discussed it with your friends over coffee, it is quite likely that you know the basics. Earth is hot. Or at least warmer than it used to be a couple of years agoThe accelerated rate at which we have started to experience environmental changes related to global warming has been keeping us on our toes (for further reference, see the Australian forest fires, the gradual disappearance of the Great Barrier Reef or, broadening our horizons beyond Oceania, the increased incidence of hurricanes battering human settlements). Whilst there are – surprisingly or stupidly, you choose – ongoing debates on how much should be done to tackle the effects of global warming, various stakeholders have taken action against the phenomenon. 

A Norwegian Vault 

An archipelago under Norwegian jurisdiction, the Svalbard Islands are one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas. The frozen wastelands are also home to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Designed to protect hundreds of thousands of different samples, the vault aims to safeguard Earth’s crop diversity against the loss of seeds in other genebanks in case of global catastrophe. Facing the challenges of extensive climate change, the vault could very well be Earth’s ultimate insurance policy protecting the food supply of future generations – maybe that is why it has such good/creative reviews on Google Maps. Yet, the preservation of seeds requires strict conditions, as even the slightest change in temperature has the potential to ruin an entire batch of samples. This is the primary advantage of the Svalbard Vault. Given that the repository is embedded in a deep layer of rock and permafrost, it has the capability to maintain a constant temperature in the event of power surges or other malfunctions of the cooling system. As such, when the surrounding melting glaciers produced a surplus of water leading to leakages inside the vault in 2017, its reliability was called into question.

Since then, the vault has received a slight waterproof upgrade along with a big additional deposit of seedsWhereas the vault has improved, the effects of global warming have not. Glaciers have kept melting year after year. Although this is generally regarded as a negative occurrence, there is also a different outlook on this process. Observe a series of maps of the Arctic region. 

As the ice continues to melt, the Arctic Ocean expands and, consequently, opens up previously inaccessible shipping routes. Whilst an all-inclusive cruise in the chilling waters of the North Pole might not be the next big tourist attraction, the new routes yield tremendous economic potential. Commercial vessels opting for this alternative could shortcut previous routes by as long as ten days, as in the case of a journey from East Asia to Northern Europe. Apply that to an entire merchant fleet and the result is a significant increase in revenue. However, at the current level, the glaciers still have a bit of melting to do until the new shipping routes become profitable – currently, the vessels traversing the area are accompanied by an icebreaker to help them navigate through the frozen territory. 

A Russian Mining Town 

About 34 kilometres away from the Global Seed Vault, there is the town of Barentsburg. Surprisingly, if you take a walk through the scening mining settlement, you will hardly hear any Norwegian being spoken. Instead, you will be welcomed with a Russian “privyet” [trans. hello]. Originally built in the 1920s by a shipbuilding company based in Rotterdam, the mine and the adjacent town was sold to a Russian trust a little over a decade later. Admittedly, this sounds a bit confusing. What is a former-Dutch, now-Russian settlement doing on Norwegian land? 

The answer lies in Svalbard’s distinct legal architecture. Signed into existence in 1920, the Status of Spitsbergen (Svalbard) lays down the specifics related to who can do what in the archipelago. Summarising the document, it allows contracting parties other than the sovereign nation – in this case, Norway – access to and limited jurisdiction over the islands. Article 3, in particular, states that contracting parties “may carry on there without impediment all maritime, industrial, mining and commercial operations on a footing of absolute equality”. 

The Barentsburg mine, however, operates at a loss. It is the Russian government that keeps the settlement afloat, trying to maintain a stable population on the island. Additionally, the town is also moving towards the tourism sector, seeking to become a hub for explorers in the Arctic region. Thus, Russia bids a lot into trying to tie its nation to the island, both economically and culturally – but why? 

As part of Russia’s grand objective to project power in the Arctic region – as showcased by previous military exercises in the area – the nation seeks to exert control over the newly surfacing Arctic ocean. That is for both economic and strategic purposes.  In order to claim as much of that maritime territory as possible, Russia relies on the exclusive economic zone rule. This creates an area extending from the coastal baseline to a maximum of 200 nautical miles, in which the country claims exclusive rights for fishing, drilling, and other economic activities. Considering the abundance of untapped oil and natural gas resources in the Arctic, the stakes become significantly higher. 

A Game of Territorial Claims 

In spite of Russia’s best efforts to wedge a claim on the maritime territory, there are other nations with the same goal in mind. Currently, Canada, Denmark as well as the United States are seeking to expand their territorial claim on the potential new sea. Invariably, their demands will conflict and it is not yet decided who will ultimately have the upper hand in the region. Yet, one thing is clear. Even on the brink of an environmental disaster, the world’s nations are craftily looking at ways to expand their influence and acquire new resources. How that will play out for humankind, it remains to be seen.