The economy of ice: A meditative moment on the Gulf of Finland

Ahmed Al-Moslemany
Tuesday 28 Jan 2020

I’ve visited the Russian Federation several times. However, this was my first visit to Saint Petersburg. It is an outstanding city intersected by 100 rivers dividing it into fifty islands. 

At first, the city seemed incomprehensible with its hundreds of bridges over rivers, many of which look the same. I wandered the city streets before drawing a map starting from the Hermitage Museum. It is the second largest museum in the world after the Louvre, and it is soon to be the third after the Grand Egyptian Museum.

The Hermitage overlooks a river, and in the background there is a grand square. In this place, the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in 1917, ending the Tsarist era and ushering in the Soviet one. Close to the other side of the palace, the prestigious Saint Petersburg University is located with its 12 buildings and renowned academic and architectural history.

In my next tour in Saint Petersburg, I saw models of long-range intercontinental missiles in a military museum. Moreover, I saw – from the outside – the famous shipyard where the well-known nuclear icebreaker Arktika was built. This icebreaker sails using two nuclear reactors and it can navigate through ice up to almost three meters thick. Moscow says that it is the most powerful icebreaker in the world.

The same shipyard is building two new icebreakers operating on nuclear energy. Before, icebreakers were of a civilian nature, but some of them now are being built for military purpose. The military icebreaker has a tugboat and frigate equipped with winged Calibre missiles and it can stay in the water for two months.

Close to the shipyard and icebreakers, the Russian State Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic is situated, where everything related to the exciting Arctic area is displayed. Tourists can take a voyage to the North Pole from Saint Petersburg, after arriving first at the city of Murmansk, which is called the North Pole Gate, and going on board an icebreaker. The cost of first class in this voyage is about $30,000. The Russian National Arctic Park is the most sought-after spot in “Arctic tourism” in that distant part of the world.

The road from Saint Petersburg to the city of Peterhof motivated me to meditate. Here were the sites of World War II battles. While walking around the Peterhof Palace garden, I listened to the female tour guide give an explanation of how statues were uprooted and buried under the ground lest the Nazis destroy them, and how the restoration began in 1945 and continues to this day.

The Peterhof Palace overlooks the Gulf of Finland. The scene is boundlessly marvellous, as if beauty is competing with itself. Within these captivating surroundings, political issues succeeded in pushing the enjoyment into the realm of ideas and taste into meditation.

I remembered reading several times about what is taking place and what may take place in the Gulf of Finland; about ships, submarines and aircraft and signs of cold war in this area, then about probabilities of an ice war that all the parties are getting ready for.

The North Pole, as a solid snowy region, was present in literature more than in politics. However, there is a new thing that began to emerge. The temperatures went up in 2019 – according to the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – recording the highest temperature degree in the North Pole throughout history.

There has been unprecedented melting of ice in the Greenland Sea. By 2030, the Arctic Ocean will be iceless during the summer season.

In 2018, a ship navigated through the North Pole in winter without an icebreaker for the first time. The ship was sailing with liquid gas. Russia seeks to make this a main shipping route for transferring natural gas, which will save a third or more of the time taken now. China isn’t far from what’s going on, for its scientists have been experimenting for years in the South Pole. There is a Chinese elite that acquired awesome knowledge in the ‘science of ice’, which witnessed huge advances following the development of the contemporary ‘Arctic studies.’

China has established the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration (CAA). In September 2019, it suggested that there should be international cooperation in the North Pole under the title “the ice and snow economy.” In October 2019, China inaugurated the first locally-made icebreaker. Japan is sceptical about China’s intentions and sees that it is already building a “Snow Belt around the Silk Road” with the aim of reaching corridors and resources.

In parallel with the Chinese-American interest in the North Pole, Russia has strengthened the fleet transferring liquid gas through the Arctic by adding a number of tankers. Moreover, Moscow has started with other partners to build a plant for the liquefaction of natural gas in the Gydan Peninsula in the Arctic. In May 2019, the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation announced the renewal of 19 military airports in the Arctic area after it enhanced the Arctic Air Defence system by installing missile launchers that function in -50 °C temperatures.

Washington is watching all this with dissatisfaction. The US, which did not ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, does not want that the North Sea Route to be an internal Russian strait, but an international strait. Since there is no international treaty that governs the Arctic security like the Antarctic Treaty, and Washington has plans to militarise the North Pole and engage in big arctic wars if it does not succeed in getting adequate benefits.

Energy experts estimate the amount of natural gas and oil in the Arctic to be more than $30 trillion, which makes everybody salivate at the prospect. Brigadier General Jeff Mac Mootry, the Dutch Marine Corps' director of operations, said, “I call it Cold War 3.0.”

With the talk of a “third Cold War”, the cold in Peterhof became unbearable. I left the Gulf of Finland in great astonishment: the melting of the ice was transformed from a disaster into an opportunity. The environmental crisis was changed to a field for investment. The economy was defeated by Global Warming. The supporters of life were beaten by the oil companies. 

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