The Changing World of the Arctic

By Depledge, Duncan; Kennedy-Pipe, Caroline | Geography, Autumn 2018 | Go to article overview

The Changing World of the Arctic


Depledge, Duncan, Kennedy-Pipe, Caroline, Geography


By 2050, climate change will have profoundly changed the Arctic (Smith, 2011). Less than 50 years ago, the Arctic Ocean was permanently ice-covered, with only marginal melt around the edges. However, in the next few decades it is likely to be ice-free in the summer, for ever-longer periods (Berkman and Young, 2009). These changes will not only be felt locally, but will also affect the jet stream and alter weather patterns around the world, with consequences for people, economies and environments in countries as far away as India (see Borgerson, 2008). This is because the Arctic is a critical component in the systems that govern the world's climate and oceans. Scientists have already linked the warming Arctic to extreme weather events such as freezing winters in North America and Europe, the devastating summer flood in Pakistan in 2010, and the famine in Russia that same year, which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths (Carrington, 2016). What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic (Dodds, 2018).

Many of us still think of the Arctic as that 'white space' at the top of the map. However, the region's borders are difficult to define. Depending on what they are studying, scientists have produced many different definitions of the Arctic based on the northern limit of the treeline, the average July temperatures, and on where the cold Arctic waters meet the warmer waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific. Others point to the Arctic Circle: the line of latitude running at approximately 66° North, above which the sun never sets in the summer or rises in the winter. What most of these definitions do have in common is that they encompass more than the white spaces of the Arctic. There are in fact many different Arctics, which have very few characteristics in common. For example, some areas, such as the Canadian and Greenlandic Arctic, are still heavily affected by sea-ice. In these areas, communities tend to be small and remote with access to very little supporting infrastructure. By contrast, the waters north of Scandinavia and north-west Russia are warmer and ice-free. Here, there is already substantial economic activity (tourism, fisheries, resource development and shipping) that supports cities of up to 300,000 people. Thus, the Arctic is far from homogenous.

Yet, with the sea-ice in retreat both in summertime and wintertime, more and more of the Arctic's riches are within the world's reach. Soviet ships started to ply the ice-choked waters of the Northern Sea Route (Figure 1) in the 1930s (Brubaker and Østreng, 1999), but now new highways for maritime traffic are being explored. In 2016, the Crystal Serenity (with more than 1000 guests on board) became the first large luxury cruise ship to sail through the Northwest Passage. Only three years earlier, the Nordic Orion became the first commercial bulk carrier to navigate the route (CHNL Information Office, 2017). Eventually, a Transpolar Sea Route over the top of the world is expected to open-up for at least part of the year (Melia et al., 2016). By 2050, these Arctic highways between the world's largest economies will offer alternatives to shippers looking to moderate their reliance on having to use the traditional strategic chokepoints of Gibraltar, the Suez and the Malacca Straits (McCoy, 2016).

With greater access to the sea, comes the tantalising prospect of exploiting more of the Arctic's resources, which include fish, oil and gas, and precious metals. As Arctic waters warm, Atlantic fish are migrating further northward, with the world's fishing fleets bound to follow. Surveys conducted a decade ago estimate that 30% of the world's undiscovered gas and 13% of the undiscovered oil is likely to lie beneath the Arctic. The Arctic is also thought to contain large troves of so-called 'rare earth metals', which may be needed to feed the world's demand for laptops, tablets, smart phones, renewable energy and the electrification of transport systems. Alongside this demand, the advent of new technologies, growing expertise and greater maritime access means that a rush for Arctic resources is only being held back by the cheaper prices elsewhere in the world as well as moral concerns about climate change, sustainable development and the perceived vulnerability of Arctic indigenous peoples and other local inhabitants to exploitation. …

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