An interesting tension exists in how we understand the Arctic. It’s often thought of as a barren wilderness, untouched and rarely visited by outsiders. Yet, the region is increasingly a hotbed of environmental, commercial and geopolitical debate.
Three trends are converging to focus attention on the future of this fragile and fast-changing region.
Firstly, temperatures in the Arctic have risen three times faster than the global average in recent decades, causing the ice caps to melt. This is creating an amplification effect, intensifying global warming with major consequences for the world’s climate and ocean circulation systems. Scientists are trying to understand the potential implications of the ice melt, but the complexity means many outcomes are beyond the realm of prediction.
As the ice retreats, natural resources including oil, timber, gas, fish, rare earth metals and minerals are being uncovered. These resources are bringing forth a second trend of growing economic interest in the region. The race for Arctic oil permits has begun. The US Geological Survey has said that about a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas lies in Arctic waters. New shipping routes are also emerging, reducing the distance for trade between Asia and Europe.
As the potential for economic develop in the region has grown, so too has competition to secure national interests. This forms a third key trajectory shaping the future of the Arctic.
The region is governed by a council of eight countries including Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States, along with representatives from six indigenous communities. But the balance of power is changing. China, Singapore and India were granted observer status in 2013. As The Economist notes, “nothing exemplified the Arctic scramble better than the rush of tropical Asian countries to join.”
What might this mean for the future of shipping?
Changing sea ice conditions are likely to open up new shipping routes through the North Polar region, and enable extended period of navigation during the summer months. Off-shore oil, gas, trade shipping and fishing activities are also expected to increase in the area.
We will be sharing resources to foster a greater understanding of the challenges and opportunities emerging from the Arctic region. In doing so, we hope to consider what interventions might be needed to maximise the chances for sustainable development.
Image credit: climatesafety / Flickr