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Nations Jostle for a Share of the Arctic
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Nations Jostle for a Share of the Arctic
Nations Jostle for a Share of the Arctic
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're about to visit a seemingly barren region that everybody wants to own. Nations and corporations are jostling for a share of the Arctic.

And this week our series Climate Connections with National Geographic tracks the maneuvering for resources at the top of the world.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The climate is changing. And so is the business climate, which you can see when traveling north of the Arctic Circle.

(Soundbite of airplane)

INSKEEP: This place is home to caribou and wolves and very few people.

Mr. GLEN WARNER (Lodge Owner): Everybody comes down to meet the planes. That's just about everybody in town right there.

INSKEEP: Ten people.

A Canadian named Glen Warner points out the window of a floatplane. It's descending to an Artic harbor that's clear of ice in summer.

Mr. WARNER: (Unintelligible) shallow on that side.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah. I'm just going to do a turn and come in and dock.

(Soundbite of airplane)

INSKEEP: And when the pilot splashes down, Warner steps to a dock near the tourist lodge that he owns.

Unidentified Man #2: Where are we? Is this the North Pole, Robert?

ROBERT: Oh, yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: Is this the North Pole?

ROBERT: Edmonton.

Unidentified Man #2: Edmonton. God damn it. We went the wrong way again.

ROBERT: Yeah.

INSKEEP: We're really at Bathurst Inlet. It's a native settlement on the north shore of mainland Canada. A red-roofed old church rises out of green Arctic tundra.

(Soundbite of child)

INSKEEP: There's not much traffic besides a boy with beads on his bicycle spokes. We're hundreds of miles beyond the nearest highway. We are not beyond the interest of business. Each of the last two summers the guests at the lodge have included Mike Roberts, who's been working. He's a geologist.

Last year a company paid him to come here looking for signs of gold. This year a different company paid him to come back searching for uranium.

Mr. MIKE ROBERTS (Geologist): Oh, this is extremely Arctic compared to 10 years ago. This is the most Arctic I've ever seen in my short career, about 14 years now.

INSKEEP: Canadian officials pass out maps that show thousands of square miles carved up into mining claims, which may give you a hint why the Arctic has been of such interest to government leaders this summer, including the prime minister of Canada.

(Soundbite of TV show)

Unidentified Announcer: Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced big plans today for the Arctic, intended to make the true north strong and undeniably Canadian.

INSKEEP: He plans an Arctic naval base and new Canadian warships. They would defend that the Northwest Passage; that's a sea route that slips near the village on Canada's north shore where we landed that floatplane.

Prime Minister STEVEN HARPER (Canada): Canada's new government understands the first principle of Arctic sovereignty - use it or lose it.

INSKEEP: Harper wants to use a passage that's mainly famous for explorers who were trapped in the ice there. Now that seaway offers clear sailing during part of the lengthening Arctic summer.

Farther north this summer, another country was staking out territory. A submarine from Russia traveled to the North Pole. The crew planted a flag on the ocean floor and came home to congratulations from President Vladimir Putin.

President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Russian spoken)

INSKEEP: It was a big success for science, Putin said before the cameras. Maybe. But it was also part of Russia's bid to own much of the Arctic Ocean. Russia's rivals may include the United States, which recently sent an icebreaker north of Alaska.

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible) course, position one.

(Soundbite of siren)

INSKEEP: It's the Coast Guard cutter Healy. Captain Ted Lindstrom's orders are to map the ocean floor, seeking signs that undersea ridges and mountains are technically part of the United States.

Captain TED LINDSTROM (U.S. Coast Guard): We believe that the information will provide evidence that there's an area that really should be claimed. It's a very large area. It clearly doesn't extend as far north as the North Pole, but we believe the extent of the continental shelf is up around 78, 79, maybe as high 80 degrees north.

INSKEEP: The Healy is gathering information incase the U.S. joins a treaty called the Law of the Sea. The treaty lets nations claim parts of the ocean floor. Captain Lindstrom says that's one more factor driving interest in the Arctic.

Capt. LINDSTROM: The fact that there are concerns about global warming, the fact that there's concerns about the increased commercial traffic in the Arctic that could be possible because of the receding ice edge, the mineral rights; many of those issues have kind of come together and raised the visibility of many people here in the Arctic.

INSKEEP: You heard him saying shipping and mineral rights. A lot of business could be done on top of the world. One American who studies these issues sees opportunities as vast as the chunks of polar ice cap that broke apart this summer.

Mr. MEAD TREADWELL (Chairman, U.S. Arctic Commission): Less ice means a more accessible Arctic Ocean.

INSKEEP: Mead Treadwell is chairman of the U.S. Arctic Commission appointed by President Bush. Visit his office in the city of Anchorage and he points to a map that's oriented so the North Pole is the center of the world. Surrounding the pole like rival suitors are places like Russia and Norway, not to mention Treadwell's own oil-rich state of Alaska.

Look at the world this way and you see how the Arctic provides a route from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans.

Mr. TREADWELL: Exploration in the Arctic for 500 years has been looking for a nearer route to Asia. The idea that the Arctic Ocean may be as important to global commerce as the Panama and the Suez Canal is now a near-potential idea. For the oil and gas business the prospect of drilling offshore and shipping from offshore in the Arctic is now very much part of people's thinking. And so people are looking that over a hundred-year horizon.

INSKEEP: A hundred-year horizon.

Mr. TREADWELL: Sure.

INSKEEP: Meaning that there are people racing to claim pieces of ocean, thinking that maybe a hundred years from now it will be a lot easier to extract whatever resources might be there.

Mr. TREADWELL: Think about it this way. Seward put off with a lot of guff to buy Alaska in 1867.

INSKEEP: The secretary of state who agreed to the...

Mr. TREADWELL: That's right. It was called Seward's Folly. Seward had a pretty big debate. And about a hundred years later the Prudhoe Bay discovery was made, 101 years later, in 1968. And if we don't make these claims now, we won't have this shot at these resources, even if it's half a century from now.

INSKEEP: You can already sense the possibility of change if you stop by Bathurst Inlet. That's the spot where we started this report, and it's a place where people are accustomed to pulling a very different bounty from the land, like wild blueberries, which Tony Akoluk pops in his mouth like candy as he walks across the tundra.

Mr. TONY AKOLUK (Resident, Bathurst Inlet): Oh, this ground is spongy. Soft. Hard to walk in.

INSKEEP: He's a member of the Inuit nations who have lived on this land for centuries. And for him, Arctic ice is good. It lets him go hunting on lakes and streams. But he doesn't need a climate scientist to tell him there's less of it.

Mr. AKOLUK: (Unintelligible) in December it's really cold. And it's warmed up a lot. It's like springtime in December sometimes. You have to wait for a long time to get thicker ice.

INSKEEP: That thinning ice may delay Tony Akoluk's hunt in the fall. But it may create opportunities for those hunting Arctic commerce.

Sun wants to break through.

Mr. AKOLUK: Yup. Say it's going to break through late this afternoon.

INSKEEP: Our reporting continues tomorrow when we'll hear about dreams of placing a seaport near that tiny village at Bathurst Inlet. It could affect the industry that wants to put a diamond on your finger.

You can find Arctic photos at npr.org.

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