Thinking about the Arctic's Future: Scenarios for 2040: The Warming of the Arctic Could Mean More Circumpolar Transportation and Access for the Rest of the World-But Also an Increased Likelihood of Overexploited Natural Resources and Surges of Environmental Refugees

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The Arctic is undergoing an extraordinary transformation early in the twenty-first century--a transformation that will have global impacts. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising at unprecedented rates and are likely to continue increasing throughout the century.

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Significant environmental changes in the region include retreating sea ice, melting glaciers, thawing permafrost, increasing coastal erosion, and shifting vegetation zones. The Arctic Ocean could even be temporarily ice-free during summer 2040, predicts one recent study.

These changes have profound consequences for the indigenous people, for all Arctic species and ecosystems, and for any anticipated economic development. The Arctic is also understood to be a large storehouse of yet-untapped natural resources, a situation that is changing rapidly as exploration and development accelerate in places like the Russian Arctic.

The combination of these two major forces--intense climate change and increasing natural-resource development--can transform this once-remote area into a new region of importance to the global economy. To evaluate the potential impacts of such rapid changes, we turn to the scenario-development process, the creation of plausible futures to enhance a dialogue among a multitude of stakeholders and decision makers.

The key themes providing the framework for the four Arctic scenarios posed for 2040 include:

* Global climate change, which results in significant regional warming in each of the four scenarios.

* Transportation systems, especially increases in marine and air access.

* Resource development--for example, oil and gas, minerals, fisheries, freshwater, and forestry.

* Indigenous Arctic peoples--their economic status and the impacts of change on their well-being.

* Regional environmental degradation and environmental protection schemes.

* The Arctic Council and other co-operative arrangements of the Arctic states and those of the regional and local governments.

* Overall geopolitical issues facing the region, such as the Law of the Sea and boundary disputes.

Scenario One: Globalized Frontier

In this first scenario, the Arctic in 2040 has become an integral component of the global economic system. Formerly a hinterland, the region has rapidly been drawn into the globalization age. Abundant natural resources, a less-harsh climate, mostly sparse populations, and a geography permitting shorter global air and sea routes between North America and Eurasia have been critical factors influencing the Arctic's development.

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The Arctic remains a bellwether for global environmental change, because the manifestations of global warming are amplified in the high latitudes. The Arctic's dramatic environmental changes include the shrinking and thinning of sea ice and significant thawing of permafrost in the Russian Arctic, Alaska, and northern regions of Canada. Arctic sea ice disappeared completely for a two-week period during summer 2040. Such climatic change has had profound and largely unfavorable consequences for a majority of the Arctic's indigenous peoples. Several coastal communities in Alaska and Canada have simply washed away.

The age of polar transportation has arrived, as the Arctic now offers greater access than at any other period in circumpolar history. The opening of Russian airspace over the Arctic early in the twenty-first century shortened flights between North America and Asia and have relieved congestion on trans-Pacific routes.

Greater marine access--earlier and longer navigation seasons--has been achieved throughout the Arctic Ocean, and commercial shipping has steadily increased in Hudson Bay, northwest Russia (Barents and Kara seas), and around coastal Alaska. Sensitive nuclear cargoes have been transported in summer across the Northern Sea Route between Europe and Japan, thereby avoiding traditional navigation straits and coastal waters where political opposition has been intense. …