Magazine article The Brown Journal of World Affairs

Geopolitics of Arctic Sea-Ice Minima

Magazine article The Brown Journal of World Affairs

Geopolitics of Arctic Sea-Ice Minima

Article excerpt

Sea ice across the Arctic Ocean is disappearing before our eyes, reaching its minimum extent on record in September 2012 (Table 1). While it may seem a bit esoteric to reflect on sea-ice minima across the North Pole, increasing open-water access across the Arctic Ocean has geopolitical implications that are both immediate and global, requiring balanced perspectives among diverse stakeholders to ensure sustainable development in this rapidly changing region. The intent of this essay is to reveal a pathway for building policy and infrastructure options that promote lasting peace and stability in the Arctic Ocean.

Historically, boundaries of the Arctic Ocean system have been the sea floor, surrounding land areas, and its permanent sea-ice cap. With inflow and outflow from the North Pacific and North Atlantic oceans, dynamics of this marine system are dramatically influenced by seasonal sunlight. In turn, the timing and intensity of solar radiation are constrained by the tilt of the Earth's axis, which is why the Arctic Circle is at 66.5 degrees North latitude (an unambiguous astronomical boundary to delimit the Arctic Ocean). The resulting oceanography, meteorology, and marine ecosystem of the Arctic Ocean directly impact adjacent human populations, including the indigenous peoples and surrounding coastal states of Norway, Denmark, Canada, United States, Russian Federation, and Iceland as well as noncoastal Arctic states of Sweden and Finland.

The Arctic Ocean has been characterized by sea ice that grows over many years, persisting year round as part of an environmental process that has been ongoing for hundreds of millennia.1 In fact, until the 21st century, the Arctic Ocean was covered mostly by multiyear sea ice, in contrast to the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, where first-year sea ice predominates.2

Within the past decade, however, the Arctic Ocean has transformed from a permanent sea-ice cap to a seasonally ice-free sea. Each year, Arctic sea ice shrinks to its minimum extent in September and then grows to its maximum extent in March. Since satellite measurements of the Arctic Ocean began in 1979, the six lowest sea-ice minima have occurred in the past six years (Table 1). Moreover, the record minimum extent of Arctic sea ice was measured just this year on 16 September 2012 (Figure 1).

Figure 1 from 16 September 2012 shows the minimum extent of sea ice ever recorded in the Arctic Ocean from satellites (Table 1), covering 3.41 million square kilometers. The Bering Strait to the Pacific Ocean is on the left, Greenland extending into the Atlantic Ocean is on the right, the Northern Sea Route is toward the top, and the Northwest Passage is toward the bottom of the image. The yellow outline shows the average sea-ice minimum from 1979 through 2010 (Table 1) and open water toward the North Pole in the high seas of the Arctic Ocean beyond national jurisdictions in the Beaufort Sea (on the leftside). Sea-ice extent was derived from data captured by the Scanning Multichannel Microwave Radiometer aboard the Nimbus-7 satellite from NASA and the Special Sensor Microwave Imager aboard multiple satellites from the United States Defense Meteorological Satellite Program.4

Moreover, the 2012 sea-ice minimum (Figure 1) was 11.83 million square kilometers fewer than the sea-ice maximum on 20 March 2012, reflecting the shiftfrom a polar marine system dominated by perennial sea ice to a new Arctic Ocean dominated by first-year sea ice. Rather than projecting out to the mid-21st century, when the Arctic Ocean may be open water across the North Pole, we can see that the system already has crossed a threshold, with more than 50 percent of the sea ice newly forming each year. Like a fertile land area becoming a desert or a glacier becoming a mountain valley, the Arctic Ocean is experiencing an environmental state change-the largest on Earth-where the boundary conditions and dynamics of the system are being fundamentally replaced. …

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