Global Warming Triggers an International Race for the Arctic
As the ice melts, national rivalries heat up over oil and gas deposits and shipping routes
By Thomas Omestad
U.S. News&World Report, posted October 9, 2008
A new epoch is beginning at the top of the Earth, where the historic melting of the vast
Arctic ice cap is opening a forbidding, beautiful, and neglected swath1 of the planet.
Already, there is talk that potentially huge oil and natural gas deposits lie under the
Arctic waters, rendered more accessible by the shrinking of ice cover. Valuable minerals,
too. Sea lanes over the top of the world will dramatically cut shipping times and costs.
Fisheries and tourism will shift northward. In short, the frozen, fragile north will never
be the same.
The Arctic meltdown-an early symptom of global warming linked to the buildup of atmospheric
greenhouse gases-heralds tantalizing2 prospects for the five nations that own the Arctic
Ocean coastline: the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark (through its
possession of Greenland). But this monumental transformation also carries risks quite
aside from the climate implications for the planet-risks that include renewed great-power
rivalry, pollution, destruction of native Inuit communities and animal habitats, and
security breaches. "The world is coming to the Arctic," warns Rob Huebert, a leading
Arctic analyst at the University of Calgary. "We are headed for a lot of difficulties."
The vast stakes3, along with some political grandstanding4, are inspiring predictions that a new
great game among nations is afoot-a tense race for the Arctic. That scenario got a shot of
drama last year when two Russian minisubmarines made a descent to the seabed beneath the
North Pole and planted a titanium Russian flag. The operation lacked any legal standing
but symbolized Moscow's claims to control the resources inside a mammoth slice of the
Arctic, up to the North Pole itself. To calm the mood, the five Arctic coast countries
gathered diplomats in Greenland this May to agree that boundary and other disputes would
be handled peacefully under existing international law. "We have politically committed
ourselves to resolve all differences through negotiation," Danish Foreign Minister Per
Stig Möller said at the time. "The race for the North Pole has been canceled."
Or maybe just put on ice, so to speak. It is not certain that his assertion will hold
up, given the long history of great powers vying5 for riches and strategic gain.
This summer, for the first time, both the fabled Northwest Passage through the upper
reaches of North America and the Northern Sea Route above Russia opened up, apart from
drifting ice. Overall, the expanse of Arctic sea ice was the second smallest in the 30
years of monitoring (summer 2007 was the smallest), and that left an islandlike polar
ice cap surrounded by open water. In just the past five years, summer ice has shrunk
by more than 25 percent, and so has its average thickness. One consequence of this
change is that much of the sun's heat formerly reflected back out to space by the ice
sheets is now being absorbed, entrenching the warming process. The acceleration of the
ice melt is outstripping earlier predictions of a basically ice-free Arctic summer
by mid- or late century. NASA climate scientist H. Jay Zwally now anticipates that
most of the Arctic will lose summer ice in only five to 10 years. "We appear to be
going through a tipping point," he says.
Already, the ice melt is threatening the traditional livelihoods of native Inuit peoples
from Alaska to Greenland. In Alaska, Inuit hunting has grown more difficult because walrus
herds have moved away with the receding ice. In Greenland, where glaciers are thawing,
similar dislocations are happening, even while commercial interests undertake a "new gold
rush" for natural resources, in the words of Inuit leader Aqqaluk Lynge. The Inuits want
more say in how the High North is developed. "You have to settle things with us," says
Lynge. "We are witnessing, almost, the death of our culture if we don't do anything."
And yet the changing Arctic is yielding big commercial opportunities. This summer, the
U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the area above the Arctic Circle, which covers 6
percent of the Earth's surface, holds 13 percent of its as-yet-undiscovered oil and 30
percent of undiscovered natural gas-most offshore, not on land. Energy companies are
Source: U.S. News&World Report, Oct. 13-20, pp. 53/54
1. swath - Landstrich, Streifen
2. tantalizing - extrem verlockend
3. stakes - Einsatz
4. grandstanding - Effekthascherei
5. vying - wetteifernd
1. What 'treasures' lie under the Arctic ice and what will the consequences be when these are
2. How has the vastness of the Arctic sea ice changed in the past 30 years and what will
the consequences be in view of the future?
3. What do you think will the consequences of the Arctic ice melting mean for the people and animals
inhabiting this part of the world?
4. Will commercial opportunities arising from the ice melting oughtweigh its disadvantages.
Substantiate your opinion.
5. What are the causes of global warming and what can be done to stop them?