lbLawson Brigham, professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, visited UCLA on Friday to speak as part of the Tod Spieker Colloquium Series. Brigham brings an interesting perspective to any discussion on the Arctic thanks to his academic credentials and maritime experience. He received a PhD from Cambridge in polar oceanography, and he is also a former Coast Guard officer and former director and Alaska Office director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission in Anchorage.

Brigham presented an hour-long slideshow entitled, “The New Maritime Arctic: Implications of Globalization, Climate Change, and Geopolitics.” What really caught my eye was a chart he included developed by the GBN Global Business Network for the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) showing four future scenarios for the Arctic based on two variables: demand and stability/regime development. The entire document and report are also available online here.


Brigham believes that while all four scenarios are plausible, the “Polar Preserve” is not consistent with the history of the Arctic or UNCLOS, for that matter. Unlike Antarctica, which fits the category of a “preserve” since there is less demand for resources and there are strict guidelines about activities in the area thanks to the Antarctic Treaty System, the Arctic generates a huge demand for resources from its littoral states and the world at large. The world’s largest zinc, nickel, and palladium mines all sit north of the Arctic Circle, and the most efficient way of transporting these resources to the rest of the world is via shipping. Oil and gas are also in high supply in the circumpolar zone. Thus, it seems that either one of two situations will pan out: “Arctic Race” or “Arctic Saga,” depending on whether there is a real, rules-based system to govern the area.

Perhaps one of the first stages to ensuring safety and security in the Arctic involves the establishment of shipping regulations. Brigham discussed the 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), which looks at maritime safety (but not naval and military security). He stressed the fact that AMSA requires consensus from all eight members of the Arctic Council, who have to approve the report before it can be issued. Its three themes are:

  1. Enhancing Arctic marine safety
  2. Building the Arctic marine infrastructure
  3. Protecting Arctic people and the environment

One of the main recommendations of AMSA involves the Arctic Marine Traffic System. As the ice melts, more ships are plying the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean, so more regulations will be needed in order to avoid environmental disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 or the recent collission of the Chinese oil tanker onto the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. This excerpt from an article in the Guardian about today’s arrests of sailors on the Mimosa, a Panama-registered ship which was taking an illegal shortcut through the Great Barrier Reef, demonstrates the risks shipping companies will take to save money, and why there is a need for real enforcement of regulations:

“The men from the Mimosa, a Panama-registered vessel, were arrested following a tip-off by maritime authorities and were picked up by police in the town of Bowen, Queensland. According to reports the ship had not been registered with an official tracking system and failed to respond to attempts by the authorities to establish contact.

The incident has highlighted the “rat run” practice employed by some shipping companies who take illegal short cuts through the Great Barrier Reef, a world heritage site and the largest coral structure in the world, to save on journey times. The area has become known as “the coal highway” used by bulk carriers of coal and oil bound for Asia.

It has also raised the question of reform of Australia’s shipping regulations. Conservationists and green groups have criticised the government for turning a blind eye to the problem and allowing bulk carriers to go through the reef without marine pilots on board with local expertise.”

While the Arctic could turn into a similar type of highway for resources if the waters become navigable enough, it is hoped that such oil spills won’t befall the pristine region. As such, AMSA recommends a “comprehensive system to improve monitoring and tracking” with “near, real-time data shared among the Arctic states” and “vessel ID, tracks, data fusion and analyses, and detection of any anomalies.” This, coupled with improved SAR tactics (search and rescue), should make the Arctic a safer place for ships and the environment. Yet regulations have to be enforced, as the case of Australia sadly shows.

For further reading, you can check out one of Brigham’s article online, “Navigating the New Maritime Arctic,” published by the U.S. Naval Institute.

Categories: Geopolitics Shipping


Lawson Brigham speaks at UCLA

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