Canadian General Walt Natynczyk, the former chief of Canada's armed forces, was once asked what his response would be if the Canadian Arctic was ever invaded. With a very slight twinkle in his eye he said, "If someone was foolish enough to attack us in the High North, my first duty would be search and rescue."
Good humor aside, the general's point is reasonably well taken. The likelihood of a conventional offensive military operation in the Arctic is very low, despite some commentators' overheated rhetoric. While there are many diplomatic and ecological challenges, the odds are good that the international community will eventually find its way to a true zone of cooperation around the Arctic Circle and manage to avoid turning the region -- the last frontier on Earth -- into a zone of needless conflict. But there are issues that must be addressed as competition rises in the High North if we are to avoid high tension.
The risks are fairly well known. There is a steady reduction in the year-round Arctic ice formations resulting from global warming -- a 40 percent reduction in ice over the past 30 years. This means that hydrocarbon and mineral resources (billions of barrels of oil, much of the world's undiscovered gas, and a trillion dollars of deep seabed minerals) will be more exposed, that Arctic shipping will increase (a million tons last year), and that tourism will increase (a million visitors last year alone), especially in the summer months. This will present potential problems from oil spills, dangers to wildlife, search and rescue for commercial shipping and tourist boats, and open zones of maneuver for the navies of the Arctic nations to interact.
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