The Arctic is coming in from the cold. We've all seen the pictures of starving polar bears, staring bleakly at the retreating pack ice on which their survival depends. But as the polar ice cap shrinks, this oceanic basin is also opening up to human activity. And as its vast economic resources become increasingly accessible, it looks set to become a cauldron of commercial potential and political conflict.
In his my book, "Cold Front: Conflict Ahead in Arctic Waters" [Counterpoint; $26.00] I analyze both the opportunities and the dangers of an increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean--from a possible oil spill that would make the Deepwater Horizon's explosion look like a little local difficulty, to an unpredictable eruption of military conflict.
Here are seven crazy things you didn't know about the Arctic, but probably should:
Nobody yet knows. The five nations bordering the Arctic Ocean - Canada, Denmark (through Greenland), Norway, Russia and the United States - are in the process of bidding for the legal right to exploit the resources of vast tracts of seabed they claim to be extensions of their respective continental shelves. As you would expect, their claims overlap. For example Canada and the US lay claim to overlapping tracts of the Beaufort Sea, while Denmark and Canada obstinately dispute the ownership of a small, strategically placed piece of rock called Hans Island. The US is in a seemingly weak bargaining position to claim territory in the Arctic, because for wider political reasons it has so far failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) under whose auspices the offshore bidding takes place.
In August 2007, scientist-turned-politician Artur Chilingarov led a private expedition to plant a Russian flag at the North Pole, 14,000 feet beneath the frozen surface of the ocean. He personally descended to this frightening depth in the Mir-1 submersible, previously used to explore the wreck of the Titanic. According to Chilingarov, the view was rather dull: no 'creatures of the deep', just 'yellowish gravel' which was sampled in the hope that it might bolster his governments claim to the Pole. Russia will not formally submit their claim until next year.
According to the US Geological Survey, something like a fifth of the world's dwindling undiscovered reserves of gas and oil are buried within the polar basin. The USGS indicates that many of the deposits are offshore, though technically recoverable as the pack ice retreats. Most of the gas is in the prospective Russian zone, and most of the oil is off Alaska. The consequences of an oil spill in this region are potentially catastrophic. Oil trapped beneath sea ice would not be broken down by wave action, could not easily be collected or burnt off, and worst of all, it might well be sealed into the pack ice by the winter freeze, drifting round the shores of the Arctic Ocean to be released who knows where in subsequent summers.
Merchant ships are already using the Northeast Passage across Siberia as it opens for a few summer weeks, saving thousands of miles and hundreds of tons of expensive fuel by comparison with the alternative route through Suez or Panama canals. The 11,000-mile trip from Rotterdam to Yokohama could be shortened by 4,000 miles and Russian premier Vladimir Putin recently forecast that the 'Northern Sea Route' would soon rival Suez.
The Russians operate a fleet of uniquely capable nuclear-powered icebreakers- ships specially designed so smash their way through a frozen sea. With more in prospect, Russia hopes to pay for these expensive vessels by offering their (sometimes compulsory) services to foreign vessels in transit through Russian coastal waters-- another jurisdictional dispute in the making.
The Russian Navy recently resumed arctic patrols for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union "for reasons of security." The quiet rattle of sabres can also be heard from Canada, which is planning a new arctic base at Nanisivik from which to protect its sovereignty, and even from peaceable Norway, which has opened a new underground military operations center in the Far North. Meanwhile (though we are unlikely to be told officially), nations like the US, Russia and Britain which operate nuclear-powered submarines, have never stopped sending them to probe beneath the ice pack, whatever the law of the sea may say about the 'right of innocent passage'.
The recent near-record melt put the Arctic Ocean on track for a completely ice-free summer of several months in perhaps as little as 30 years. Huge quantities of methane, a 'greenhouse' gas 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide, are trapped not far beneath the Arctic, buried in the permafrost of the surrounding tundra. Because average temperatures in the Arctic are rising almost twice as fast as elsewhere in the world, climate scientists and oceanographers fear that as the ice melts and the methane is released, the arctic region could suddenly reach a tipping point, producing what scientists refer to as 'abrupt climate change'--a vicious cycle of methane release, warming, and more methane release. There is evidence that this may have happened in the past, in once instance perhaps being implicated in a mass extinction of living creatures.