With the exception of the Inuit and other hardy souls of the Far North, the deep Arctic stood as a formidable outland for centuries and even the bravest non-natives only utilized its periphery for fish and furs from the resident four-legged or flippered animals. It’s cold up there, of course, and the weather can be violent. Once north of the northernmost stretches of Eurasia and North America, there’s nothing but the Arctic Ocean with a floating icecap. Summers tilt the Arctic toward the sun and there is melting along the edges of the icecap every year, but with the acceleration of climate change, the permanent ice cap gets smaller and smaller. Navigating around the Arctic Ocean gets easier and easier each summer, and scientists predict an ice-free summer sometime in the next 40 years or so. That ice-free prediction has been going on for decades, and even though some have predicted it would have happened by now, the ice keeps thinning and breaking up in an overall trend, so in time, an open Arctic in summer looks pretty assured.
This increasingly accessible Arctic has not gone unnoticed by those who smell a profit. Ships are already exploring new passages for brief periods in the late summer along some peripheral routes, although actual commercial shipping is still waiting. “Ice-free” really means “passable”, since there would still be chunks of ice that a freighter could push by. The intermittent nature of the availability of such routes makes their use less attractive, and at this time there is no system of ports or massive economic activity and attendant infrastructure in the far north. In addition, weather conditions for that area are nowhere near as well known as in more temperate climes, and weather knowledge is crucial to marine operations. The rules of weather in the Arctic will also no doubt be evolving as the ice diminishes, and of course the presence of ice in fall, winter, and even spring would preclude all such passage. It would take a good deal more warming to allow a direct cross-Arctic route, but the savings in shipping from even the routes that skirt around the edges could be a strong incentive.
Also looking to the less-icy Arctic with dollar signs in their eyes are the major oil and mining companies. The Obama administration has just given Shell Oil the permits it needs to drill preliminary wells in the Arctic this summer. Earlier efforts were fraught with equipment failures and weather-related mishaps, but those in the industry predict the Arctic holds 20% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas so there is enormous pressure to find and exploit the resource. Whether it can be removed safely and then burned without sending climate change into overdrive remains to be seen.
Due in part to the economic prospects of the Arctic, but also in response to its strategic value, the military interests and therefore the governments of several nations are focusing on their role or potential role in the future of the region. Foremost among them are the Arctic-bordering countries of Canada, the U.S., Russia, Norway and Denmark (by way of Greenland). Finland, Sweden and Iceland are also close enough to want to be in the game. Those countries with actual shoreline can claim the internationally accepted 200 nautical miles offshore and even extend that to 350 miles by citing continuous geological structures. Russia has carried this to the max by claiming a much longer underwater ridge that nearly reaches the North Pole. Russia also makes a dubious claim of sovereignty over the pole itself by way of having planted a sea-bottom flag there in 2007. Russia sees the region as the future of its resource base and is planning the military structure to defend it. The U.S., though not yet a signatory to the UN charter that codifies the Arctic claims of the other neighbor states, is also making plans for a more robust military presence in its Arctic zone, and Canada takes its far northern border quite seriously as well. Even China, with no connection to the Arctic whatsoever but a strong thirst for any potential fish or energy resource, got its nose under the tent by gaining access to various committees dealing with Arctic affairs. Interested in the future possibility of using northern shipping routes to avoid political difficulties in some of their current routes, China is promoting the worldwide importance of the Arctic and claiming its future affects the Chinese integrally.
The environmental organization Greenpeace promotes the opposite view, that leaving the Arctic’s oil untouched, and creating marine protected areas bodes better for the health of the planet than exploitation. However, given the vigor of territorial claimants to the region, this strategy may not work as well as their campaign to preserve Antarctica as a no-take zone. The situation may not get any less complicated; other nations are looking to join the club of Arctic stakeholder wannabes as this cold frontier thaws its way into the grasp of a resource-hungry world.