Mining the Arctic and the Moon

May 04, 2009
*Special to asia!

How nations divide up the Arctic could set precedence for the Moon.

What do the Arctic and the moon have in common? The answer: they are both valuable assets to some nations.

Five countries with borders on the Arctic Ocean – Russia, the US, Canada, Denmark and Norway – are scrambling to claim whatever they can of the Arctic. Two of the five, Russia and the US, are also keen to make claims for parts of the moon. They will be competing with other nations. China, Japan, South Korea and India have all made it clear they want a slice of the moon pie. Others, such as the Europeans, could soon wade in for the fight.

Both Arctic and the moon offer something sorely needed in the 21st century. For the Arctic, it is the immense amount of oil buried under its seabed, as well as the key to one of the most coveted commercial sea routes in the world, the fabled Northwest Passage. For the moon, it is an element (actually an isotope of an element) called helium 3, which some say is the ideal fuel for clean nuclear power generation

For centuries mariners have tried to sail from the Pacific to the Atlantic and back via the Arctic Ocean. Such a route would drastically shorten the time it takes to ship goods between North America and Asia. All efforts to establish the Passage had ended in vain due to the ice sheets blocking the ships in the Arctic. The ice also stopped all serious attempts to explore the oil deposits under the sea bed.

This is no longer true. Global warming has melted so much ice (385,000 sq miles in 2007 alone, roughly the size of Turkey) that the Northwest Passage could be open to commercial traffic within a decade. Exploration for oil may start even before that.

The United Nations Convention for the Law of the Seas limits the Arctic nations to 200 miles of territorial waters. But the UN would entertain further claims if a nation can show its continental shelf is linked to the Arctic seabed. The first such claim – an unsuccessful one – was lodged by Russia in 2001. Given the stakes involved, all five Arctic nations are expected to lodge more claims in the next few years.

How the UN handles such claims could have deep implications on similar claims on the moon. In 1979, the UN sanctioned the Moon Treaty, which forbids ownership of lunar territory by individuals or nations.

The Moon Treaty aroused little interest until the mid-1980s, when nations realised that helium 3, which is plentiful on the moon but virtually non-existent on earth, is a potential energy source more powerful than oil.

There is a growing movement among the spacefaring nations to push the UN to amend the Moon Treaty allowing limited territorial ownership for the mining of helium 3. The Law of the Seas has been mentioned as a good template for the amendment. Whether this suggestion would be adopted would depend on whether the Arctic nations can peacefully sort out their claims on the North Pole.


Related Stories:

China's Moon Quest

The Moon's Riches

Japan's Space Race Faces Obstacles

Up and Away

Kaguya, the Japanese Moon Goddess

Chang'e the Chinese Goddess in the Moon

Fight of the Moon Goddesses


lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


Contact Han Shih