As Arctic Ice Melts, Rush Is on for Shipping Lanes, More

John Roach
National Geographic News
February 25, 2005
The melting Arctic ice is fueling a rush for the North Pole region's

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.

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.

Melting Ice

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.

Environmentalists are concerned that the rush to develop the Arctic for resource extraction and shipping will negatively impact Arctic wildlife and native peoples. But political leaders are concerned about access and control, Smith said.

According to Smith, there are four ongoing maritime boundary disputes over shipping and resource access in the Arctic: between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea; Russia and the U.S. in the Bearing Sea; the U.S. and Canada in the Beaufort Sea; and Canada and Denmark in the Davis Strait (Greenland is a semi-independent Danish territory).

In October 2004 Denmark joined Canada and Russia in staking a claim to the North Pole. Denmark announced a 25-million-U.S.-dollar project to prove that the seabed beneath the North Pole is a natural extension of Greenland's seabed. If successful, it could give Denmark the right to the Pole's abundant resources.

"It is far too early to say whether a claim north of Greenland will be successful," said Bente Olsen of Denmark's Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation in Copenhagen.

Oppenheimer said he expects to see more Arctic territory claims in the years ahead and that regardless of what countries are in control, the Arctic can expect a flood of people from the south who will likely squeeze out the native people.

"It will take some effort to ensure the invasion winds up differently than other widespread population movements," he said. "But history isn't very encouraging."

Cautious Approach

The WWF's Smith said Arctic nations ought to negotiate a treaty that regulates access to the region's resources and shipping routes to prevent an environmental catastrophe due to overdevelopment.

But first, she added, the world ought to make aggressive cuts in carbon dioxide emissions to slow or halt the pace of global warming and thus head off any widespread migration to the Arctic.

High energy prices, ongoing political instability in the Middle East, and a booming economy in China are all economic forces that increase pressure to open the Arctic to increased resource extraction and ship traffic, Smith said.

"But our view is that before anything happens, governments and people who have rights to the coastal areas should set aside the most valuable and important areas simply because they can still be a heritage for future generations," she said.

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