National Geographic News
The melting Arctic ice is fueling a rush for the North Pole region's resources.
Governments are jostling for political control over new passages for ships between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The disappearing sea ice could also open the way to exploit a bounty of oil, gas, minerals, and fish once protected by their inaccessibility, scientists and environmentalists caution.
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The Arctic sea ice has receded by about 40 percent since 1979. By the end of this century the region could be ice free during the summer months, according to Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Oppenheimer is an expert on the science and policy of global climate change and its impacts. He said Arctic nations have noted the economic potential presented by the melting ice and are jostling for control in the region.
"Countries these days tend to work out economic competition peacefully," he said. "On the other hand, that doesn't mean it will be worked out in a way that's beneficial to the Arctic environment or the people who live there."
As the Arctic ice recedes, ships will be able to ferry loads between Europe and Asia using sea routes that hug the Arctic coasts of Canada and Russia. The new routes should be more than a third quicker for some shipments that now pass through the Suez or Panama canals.
It may take several decades for these trans-Arctic shipping routes to be safely opened. In the near term, though, less ice means commercial fishing fleets and the oil, gas, and mining industries can access a bounty of unexploited resources, environmentalists say.
Samantha Smith is the director of the WWF (formerly World Wildlife Fund) Arctic Programme in Oslo, Norway. She said the potential economic windfall to the countries that control access to the Arctic has prompted a significant uptick in interest in the region.
"Everyone, including governments and definitely including organizations like the WWF, are now aware that the sea ice that has been protecting the Arctic seas for centuries is now in danger because of our addiction to fossil fuels," she said.
Scientists say the climate is warming and the ice is melting because cars and smokestacks continue to pump carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These gases act like a blanket, trapping heat radiated by the Earth.
Even if humans ceased pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere tomorrow, some melting of the Arctic ice would continue, owing to the residual warming effect of the gases already in the atmosphere, Oppenheimer said.
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