RTHE BIGGEST IN US the constituent republic is Yakutia. It extends well into the Arctic Circle and is as large as Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Finland and Romania combined, but with a population of ‘barely 1 million inhabitants. In the last decade, the retreat of the pack ice has opened up a new shipping route along its coast, the Northern Sea Route (RSN). It is the shortest passage between the ports of East Asia and West Europe, but its icy waters also offer something even more precious: geological wealth, in the form of cobalt, tin and metals. rare earths, deep below the surface.
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Harsh weather and other obstacles to extraction make prospecting along the RSN a formidable enterprise. Nevertheless, many Russian state weapons as well as private investors have already set their sights on these underwater minerals, in addition to the region’s oil and gas. The discoveries of deposits on land give hope for new offshore bonuses. The nodules, tiny balls of oxides scattered on the ocean floor and first identified off the coast of Siberia, hold great promise. They contain minerals that can be used in everything from electronics to rechargeable batteries.
But there is a problem. Nodules form when seawater enters magma chambers deep under the seabed. This water is heated to extreme temperatures before rising to the surface through chimney-shaped vents, in fact submarine volcanoes. The process leaches metals from the earth’s crust and deposits them on the seabed. But the air vents also warm the water nearby, which supports remarkable ecosystems on the seabed. These habitats are poorly understood and it would take decades to fully study them. In the absence of proper environmental controls, biologists and oceanographers fear that extracting minerals from around air vents could destroy irreplaceable habitats.
“Impact assessment is easier to do on earth,” explains Javier Escartin of the Laboratoire de Géologie, a university institution in Paris. “We don’t have data on the ocean, where ecosystems are often so fragile that they don’t recover on a human scale.” An assessment along the RSN would require sophisticated robots to collect samples and map the seabed – efforts that some say would be so costly as to make the exploitation of underwater resources unsustainable.
For now, Russian mining companies are being watched. Alrosa, Russia’s largest diamond producer, describes Yakutia as “a northern frontier for short-term exploration,” although the company provided no details. Nornickel, a large nickel producer off the Taimyr Peninsula, stresses the need for green building standards but “does not conduct deep-sea mining and does not currently plan to do so”. Yet in 2001, Russia submitted a request to extend its exclusive economic zone by 200 nautical miles from the coast to the North Pole, in some places.
Completely frozen just 20 years ago, Yakutia’s waters are now navigable by ordinary ships for four months a year, and global warming will likely widen that window. As the crossing becomes more frequented, many see alarming risks: in addition to environmental impact studies, calls for greater protection of indigenous peoples, restrictions on dredging and pollution, and to transparency regarding mining operations are initiated. “Regulations are insufficient, especially now that the Arctic is open for business,” said Malte Humpert, founder of The Arctic Institute, an American think tank. The RSN, it seems, is an emerging economic and environmental flashpoint, both above and below water. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Les bijoux de Poseidon”