As Climate Change Melts Polar Ice, a New World Emerges

Over two decades ago, at the height of the Cold War, Arctic scholar Oran Young proclaimed that the world was "entering the age of the Arctic, an era in which those concerned with international peace and security will urgently need to know much more about the region and in which policy makers in the arctic rim states will become increasingly concerned." Indeed, a glance at any Cold War-era map of the polar region showed the two superpowers standing face-to-face across their common polar frontier. The logic of geopolitics placed the North Pole at the very center of the world, making the Arctic Ocean appear to be the modern-day equivalent of the Mediterranean of ancient times.

Polar Ice

And yet, the age of the Arctic did not come. There was one seemingly immutable factor preventing the "age of the Arctic" from starting: the harsh climate and permanent polar ice pack made large-scale polar development largely an exercise in futility, keeping development of the region limited to just a few large-scale energy, natural resource or military projects. Apart from nuclear submarines passing silently beneath, and exceedingly expensive heavy icebreakers crunching their way across, the polar sea ice remained largely impenetrable.

But now, two decades after Young introduced the concept of the "age of the Arctic" to the lexicon of northern studies, something transformative is finally happening up along our last frontier: the long frozen, seemingly impenetrable polar sea is starting to thaw, unexpectedly fast, opening up larger and larger portions of the Arctic Ocean to seasonally ice-free conditions for longer and longer periods of time.

So quickly is the ice melting that the prospect of a navigable, ice-free Arctic Ocean is no longer the stuff of fanciful imagination, and has been the topic of two NOAA National Ice Center-sponsored conferences, the April 2001 Naval Operations in an Ice Free Arctic Symposium, and the July 2007 Impact of an Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations Symposium. Within our lifetimes, and possibly in less than a single generation, we may witness the opening up of Arctic sea lanes that are fully navigable year-round: the strategic, economic and diplomatic consequences will be enormous.

According to scientists from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free by 2060 if current warming trends continue. NSIDC research so far this year suggests that "the Arctic is experiencing an unprecedented sixth consecutive year with much less sea ice than normal, and it looks like this year's sea ice melt season may herald a new and steeper rate of decline," and that "the extent of Arctic sea ice for 2007 is currently on pace to set a new record minimum that may be substantially below the 2005 record."

The impacts of global warming and the resulting Arctic thaw will be profound. Michael T. Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and defense correspondent for The Nation, explained to me that "global warming will affect resource competition and conflict profoundly" in the coming years-and while "global warming's effects cannot be predicted with certainty, it is likely to produce diminished rainfall in many parts of the world, leading to a rise in desertification in these areas and a decline in their ability to sustain agriculture" which may in turn "force people to fight over remaining sources of water and arable land, or to migrate in large numbers to other areas, where their presence may be resented by the existing inhabitants."

Klare added that "global warming is also expected to produce a significant rise global sea levels, and this will result in the inundation of low-lying coastal areas around the world"-resulting in "the widespread loss of agricultural lands, forcing many millions of people to migrate to higher areas, possible encountering resistance in the process." Klare cautioned that "because many poor countries will be unable to cope with the catastrophic effects of global warming, state collapse is a likely result along with an accompanying epidemic of warlordism, ethnic violence, and civil disorder."

But in the Arctic region itself, the melting ice will open up an entire ocean that has been ice-covered for millennia, bringing an end to what we can think of as the final chapter of the last Ice Age. As the polar ice melts, we'll witness the gradual emergence a brand new world, unlocking what just a few years ago would have been unimaginable economic opportunities, as the long-closed Arctic waterways open up to rising volumes of commercial shipping and naval traffic, and as the thinning (and later disappearing) ice makes it more cost-effective, and technologically viable, to explore the region's undersea natural resource potential, and to fully develop those new discoveries.

This new world is not unlike that discovered by early explorers when they journeyed across the Atlantic, from the Old World to the New, in search of undiscovered countries and riches. We, too, are on a journey of discovery to a new and unknown world-a world full of riches unknown, but not unimagined.

Within our lifetimes, and quite possibly before mid-century, we may witness the opening up of Arctic sea lanes that are fully navigable year-round. Already, seasonally ice-free sea lanes are a reality across much of the Arctic, a situation that just a few decades ago would have been unimaginable without expensive heavy ice-breaker support. Indeed, last summer the famed Northwest Passage was ice-free for the first time since satellites began monitoring its ice conditions three decades ago.

Climate change pessimists worry about increased resource competition, coastal flooding, infrastructure damage from melting permafrost, changes in wildlife migration patterns, and stresses on some species-especially polar bears-as well as on the indigenous cultures of the region. But climate change optimists imagine a world where international shipping can take a direct northern route linking Asian, North American and European markets, cutting the consumption of fuel and reducing carbon emissions by using substantially shorter shipping routes; they foresee tremendous potential for maritime commerce to stimulate the economic development of Arctic ports, from the Port of Churchill on James Bay to the depressed coastal communities of the High Arctic. Secure sea lanes across the top will enable shipping of strategic commodities-whether North Slope and North Sea oil, strategic minerals from Nunavut to the Yukon North Slope, and a slew of Russian exports from the Kola peninsula to the Lena River basin-without the risks associated with current sea lanes and their vulnerable chokepoints, from the Strait of Malacca to the Panama Canal to the Red Sea.

In terms popularized by Sir Halford John Mackinder, the famed theorist of geopolitics, the long isolated "Lenaland" along the Arctic basin will transform into a highly productive and strategically important "Rimland"-transforming the Arctic into tomorrow's equivalent of the Mediterranean, a true strategic, economic and military crossroads of the world. As envisioned by Oran Young two decades ago, we will finally witness the arrival of the "Age of the Arctic."

But not an Arctic defined by cold and ice. Indeed, the Arctic as we have known it since classical times, is coming to an end. In the December 1992 edition of Equinox Magazine, naturalist Ed Struzik penned a prescient article titled "The End of the Arctic," noting that with the warming of the Earth's climate will come the end of the Arctic as we know it. In many ways, his prediction is now coming true. While we can mourn the passage of an era, and the loss of a unique ecosystem, we can also celebrate the coming transformation. With the end of all things comes the start of something new, and in this case that something new may prove to be extraordinary.

While at the top of our world sits the polar sea, at its bottom lays the ice-covered continent of Antarctica. And as its ice cover melts, this long-isolated continent will rise from the shadows, like Atlantis transmigrating from imagination to reality, with all its long-hidden treasures revealed, its resources becoming accessible, its land mass in time becoming suitable for human habitation. As the world population continues to grow, and with it its appetite for natural resources, the emergence of this new, unfrozen continent, and its integration into the world's political economy, may prove every bit as transformative as the melting of the Arctic sea ice in the years to come.

So while pessimists fear the changes that are under foot, and their many uncertainties, a more optimistic, and ultimately more prudent, approach would be to prepare to make the most of these new, emergent realms. With both poles locked in an Ice Age that never ended, the onset of an Arctic and Antarctic thaw promises to reunite our planet's seas and continents, and for history to, in many ways, begin. This does not mean that short- and medium-term impacts won't be disruptive across the region, as coastlines, migration patterns of wildlife, and ice conditions are altered.

But just as scholar Francis Fukuyama described the end of the Cold War as the "End of History" as we knew it, and the start of a new and uncertain era, we once again find ourselves standing at the threshold of new era. Whether we think of this era as the "End of the Arctic," or the beginning of the long anticipated "Age of the Arctic," we can be sure that a brand new chapter of history will be written, and that it promises to be a fascinating chapter.

About the Author: Barry Zellen is the author of Breaking the Ice: From Land Claims to Tribal Sovereignty in the Arctic (Lexington Books, March 2008) which examines the evolution of land claims and self-government in the Western Arctic region. He directs the Arctic Security research project at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Contemporary Conflict, where he is deputy editor of the Strategic Insights journal. He lived in the NWT and Yukon from 1988 until 2000.

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