The Arctic vs. Antarctic - The Two Poles (not) Compared

by Kathrin Keil Case study comparisons are in vogue in academia. They are praised as a valuable tool in order to successfully accomplish theory development, to avoid inferential errors, and to generate reliable knowledge of important policy problems (cf. e.g. George & Bennett, 2005).

Thus, one of the typical reactions to a Ph.D. candidate writing her thesis about the Arctic is: “Why don’t you take the Arctic as a case and compare it to a second one, the most suitable being the Antarctic given that the two polar caps of the earth have so many similarities?” While case study comparisons are surely a useful tool for many important questions in the realm of political science, I have spent many colloquia sessions trying to convince my colleagues that comparing the North and South Pole is not a good idea if one deals with questions that touch upon the political, economic, military, institutional, social and cultural characteristics of the Arctic region.

Of course the two poles do share a number of features. For example, the movement of the sun around the earth affects both poles in the same way. Both poles ‘suffer’ from the same lack of sunlight during the winter months and the excessive solar irradiation in summer. The only difference is that the seasons are offset by six months.

A look at the geographical characteristics of the two Poles shows also a diametrically opposed difference: The Antarctic consists of land surrounded by ocean, while the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land. Antarctica is its own continent surrounded by the Southern Ocean, while no 'Arctic' continent exists, rather an Arctic Ocean that is delimited by North America, Eurasia and Greenland.

Also climatic differences are striking. While the mean annual temperature in the Arctic is between -15 and -20 °C, it is as low as -50 to -57°C in the Antarctic. During summer months the Arctic is in big parts ice- and snow-free, which renders it suitable for a rich flora to develop. Also many terrestrial mammals and bird species are found north of 70°C North. In contrast, the Antarctic inland never thaws, which limits flora to just a few species. No terrestrial mammals and only a few bird species exist south of 70° South.

Concerning political and institutional issues, many scholars working on the Arctic have outlined numerous arguments for why we should take the Arctic as a region in its own right without resorting to flawed comparisons with the Antarctic (other suggestions for comparison have been outer space, deserts, or the moon). Oran Young in his 1992 book Arctic Politics - Conflict and Cooperation in the Circumpolar North introduced a useful classification for regions, which is very helpful in coming to terms with the Arctic-Antarctic comparison issue. He differentiated between “international cockpits”, “international arenas”, and “shared resource regions” (p. 7 ff.).

International cockpits are for example the Middle East, Southeast Asia, or Central America, where conflicts indigenous to the region threaten to escalate in ways that may trigger wider international conflicts. An international arena is for example Antarctica, the oceans, or outer space, where external actors are drawn to regional settings as attractive stages on which to pursue their own interests. Such regions are beyond national jurisdiction and are commonly referred to as global commons.

While it is tempting to put the Arctic into the latter category, as its sparsely populated nature prevents it from developing hot conflicts of indigenous nature despite powerful actors interested in the region’s resources, the region differs from global commons in a significant way.

First, despite the existence of areas of High Sea and a number of still open jurisdictional questions concerning predominantly sea boundaries in the Arctic Ocean, the sovereign authority of states reaches far further into the Arctic than it does on Antarctica or outer space. Once all continental shelf claims will have been settled successfully, the area beyond national jurisdiction where resources of the seabed can only be exploited to the benefit of all mankind will be fairly small as the map indicates. In contrast, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty has effectively frozen existing jurisdictional claims and prevented the addition of new claims.

The two white areas in the map show the area of international seabed where Arctic coastal states do not have and will not have any jurisdiction. This is the area of the seabed, ocean floor and subsoil, referred to as “the Area” in UNCLOS, i.e. the area beyond national jurisdiction where resources of the seabed can only be exploited to the benefit of all mankind (cf. Art. 136 ff. UNCLOS). The light blue area represents the combined exclusive economic zones (EEZs) from the five coastal states within the central Arctic Ocean. The dark blue area represents international waters or the High Seas, i.e. the zone of waters beyond coastal state jurisdiction but with possible extended continental shelf rights according to Art. 76 UNCLOS.

Second, in contrast to permanently uninhabited Antarctica, the Arctic is a homeland for a considerable number of indigenous peoples and their distinct cultures, languages, and traditions. As Oran Young put it very accurately, “for centuries [the Arctic has been] populated by people and not penguins”. Additionally, the Antarctic has never been a major military arena – demilitarization has been codified in Art. 1 of the Antarctic Treaty – in contrast to the significant strategic meaning that the Arctic undoubtedly had and still has for various players.

Another sharp difference to the Arctic is that hardly any commercial ventures were and are taking place in the Antarctic region. While oil, gas, minerals, wood, fresh water, and fish are commercially used in the Arctic, the natural resources within the Antarctic Circle must not be commercially exploited. Alyson Bailes sums up the main political differences between the Arctic and the Antarctic by stating that “[i]t is best to recognize the High North as already a globalized region: inhabited for at least 10,000 years, commercially exploited since the Viking age, and used for military deployments since at least the late 19th century”.

Third, the Arctic has evolved as a transnational region, i.e. Arctic (inter)actions cut across or transcend national boundaries in a spatial sense as well as concerning the actors involved. In addition to national governments, a growing number of international, regional, and bilateral institutions also including sub-national and non-governmental actors are involved in Arctic affairs. Examples include the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Nordic Saami Council, the International Arctic Science Committee, and the Northern Forum.

In sum, comparing the Arctic and Antarctic when analyzing political and institutional issues leads to the all-to-common apple-and-pear comparison. The Arctic is a region of shared resources and ecosystems with a complex institutional system and actors. It thus demands different questions and answers than the global common Antarctica with its one overarching treaty system and the limited and distinct number of state actors involved.