Arctic ice is melting even more quickly than scientists predicted. At this time last year, an area the size of Venezuela (350,000 square miles) had melted at the North Pole. According to the article, “The Coming Arctic Boom” by Scott Borgerson in the July/August 2013 Foreign Affairs, the melting of the ice is supposed to make Arctic summers ice free by as early as 2020 – a rapid increase from the original 2070 prediction.
Due to warmer summer temperatures, ice hockey arenas in Northern Canada have begun installing refrigeration to maintain their rinks. Subarctic plants and animals are migrating north and walruses are making landfall in northwest Alaska. While these changes grab the headlines, there is a positive side to global warming – increased trade and resource development in the Arctic.
The Arctic can now be sailed through from the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia to Norway in Europe during the summer months and between 2010 and 2012 the number of ships traveling east from northwestern Europe through the Arctic to Asia increased from 34 to 46. These new routes will save thousands of shipping miles between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
New areas of tremendous resources in oil and gas are opening up. Early estimates put reserves at 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas deposits. Many super-major oil companies are already exploring. In addition, nickel, palladium, platinum, diamonds, tungsten and zinc are in great abundance in this newly-opened territory. The search for riches in the north is afoot.
Fortunately for the world, the nations who have borders adjacent to the Arctic – Russia, Norway, Denmark (Greenland), Canada and the U.S. – have made agreements that will encourage cooperation rather than competition. Unfortunately though, according to the author, the U.S. government has been asleep at the switch because the Senate has refused for decades to ratify The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas agreement due to fears over loss of sovereignty. This stand has weakened the U.S. position in the region and keeps it from claiming an additional 350,000 square miles of territory that could be added with U.S. ratification of the UNCLOS agreement.
Militarily, the U.S. also lags behind these other nations: Currently, none of the U.S. Navy surface fleet has the hulls or the power to navigate the region. In contrast, Russia has 30 icebreakers, some nuclear powered. Canada owns 13. Both South Korea and China, while lacking an Arctic coastline, have new icebreakers, according to the article. The U.S. Coast Guard has three, but one is no longer in service, another is almost ready for decommissioning and the third is a floating research lab.
Potentially, the 55-mile wide Bering Strait could become an important commercial and military chokepoint for future trade and exploration. This could mean a shifting of military resources to Alaska in the future to guard U.S. interests.
It may be that Anchorage and Reykjavik will eventually become major shipping centers for this region. The Chinese government, realizing this, is exploring the possibility of trade agreements and a long-term lease with Iceland for its state shipping company. Additionally, more ships will be traveling across the Arctic, meaning that the Panama and Suez Canals may become less strategically important. Seaports along Puget Sound, in the San Francisco Bay Area, and at Long Beach near Los Angeles, could grow. Recently, the Panama Canal finished its expansion, allowing larger ships to cross between the Atlantic and Pacific. This was expected to decrease business along the West Coast, but with the opening of the Arctic route, the dynamics of oceanic trade could change yet again. Finally, the arguments for and against development in the Arctic will be a struggle between those who want to exploit the region’s resources and those who want to preserve the fragile ecosystem. Careful thought should be exercised to balance between those who believe in “Drill, baby, drill!” and the environmentalists who want to preserve flora and fauna. Additionally, preplanning and preparing to avoid another Deepwater Horizon disaster should be high on both groups’ agendas. The opening of the Arctic to shipping and commerce stands ready as a Congressional battle waiting in the wings. The Arctic region’s melting ice will also open up more possibilities for trade, but it will heat up the debates and accusations in the federal government. Things are guaranteed to get hotter as the Arctic ice continues to melt.