By Alan W. Dowd

Cold Front
After its “Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal,” the US Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that the Arctic may hold 90 billion barrels of oil, 44 billion barrels of propane and butane and 1.6 trillion cubic feet of gas. As Bloomberg News reports, that’s more oil than “all the known reserves of Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Mexico combined, and enough to supply US demand for 12 years.”

The good news is that about a third of the oil is in Alaskan territory. The bad news is that Russia has decided to carve out its own “exclusive Arctic zone”—in violation of a UN agreement limiting claims more than 200 miles offshore—to exploit resources that may or may not be in Russian territory. To underline its claims, Moscow sent a nuclear-powered icebreaker to the Arctic and even planted the Russian flag under the ice. Plus, as Canada’s National Post reports, Russian General Vladimir Shamanov recently announced that Russia has begun training “troops that could be engaged in Arctic combat missions.”

For its part, the US conducts routine exercises in and around the area, including a military exercise called Northern Edge (most recently held in May 2008), which featured some 5,000 troops and sent a clear signal that Washington doesn’t accept Russia’s claims. Washington has also quietly slipped submarines under the icecap and through the water passages of the Arctic.

Likewise, as the Toronto Star recently detailed, Canadian Forces patrol the far north as part of yearly exercise known as Operation Nunalivut (“this land is ours”) aimed at asserting Canada’s “sovereignty in the High Arctic.” In addition, Canada is building six to eight ships to guard the Northwest Passage, and in 2007 announced plans to build two military bases in the region.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Donald Lee Gautier of the USGS cautions that the region “will not ratchet up global production like a new Saudi Arabia.” But the nations that border the region—including two nuclear-armed powers with a long history of mistrust—are certainly ratcheting up the tension.

Sea Monster
Scientists are alarmed by what is being called a “plastic soup” of waste floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The strange, manmade phenomenon “covers an area twice the size of the continental United States,” according to the British newspaper The Independent.

The semi-submersed, semi-floating debris field churns 500 nautical miles off California and reaches past Hawaii. It includes “everything from footballs and kayaks to Lego blocks.” Some of it is trash from ships and sea-based platforms, but most comes from land.

The Central Pacific’s slow circulation and light winds allow the garbage to form a loose chain of flotsam that “moves around like a big animal without a leash,” in the words of one oceanographer. 

Press Freedoms on the Defensive
Global watchdog Freedom House has released its 2008 report on press freedom, concluding that “press freedom declined on a global scale in 2007, with particularly worrisome trends in the former Soviet Union, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.”  The top of the rankings are dominated by European nations:

1.         Finland/Iceland
3.         Denmark/Norway
5.         Belgium/Sweden
7.         Luxembourg
8.         Andorra/Netherlands/New Zealand/Switzerland
21.        United States
40.        France
161.      Venezuela
170.      Russia
185.      Iran
195.      North Korea    

All told, 37 percent of the countries on earth were deemed “free,” 30 percent “partly free,” and 33 percent “not free.” The United States, standard-bearer of freedom of the press, was given a surprisingly low ranking due to “continuing problems in the legal sphere, particularly concerning cases in which the authorities tried to compel journalists to reveal confidential sources,” according to Freedom House researcher Karin Deutsch Karlekar.

Freedom’s March
The global freedom watchdog Freedom House has labeled 2007 “a notable setback for freedom.” Citing reversals in one fifth of the countries on earth, one Freedom House researcher laments a “profoundly disturbing deterioration of freedom worldwide.” Notable decliners include Afghanistan, Egypt, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria and Venezuela, while Haiti, Poland and Turkey showed signs of progress on the freedom ratings.

  • 46 percent of the earth’s population lives freedom
  • 18 percent lives in partial freedom
  • 36 percent lives in countries that are not free

The good news is that the overall global trend continues to move in the direction of freedom.

            Free Countries                Not Free
1977     28 percent                     41 percent        
1987     35 percent                     30 percent
1997     42 percent                     28 percent
2007     47 percent                     22 percent

As a contributing editor to The American Legion Magazine, Dowd writes columns and news briefs on national security, foreign affairs and U.S. politics each month for the magazine's "Rapid Fire" section.