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.

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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 swath 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 tantalizing 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 stakes, along with some political grandstanding, 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 vying 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 intrigued. Royal Dutch Shell, for instance, laid down $2 billion this year for drilling leases in the Chukchi Sea off of Alaska. BP will drop $1.5 billion to develop an offshore Alaskan oil field, and Exxon Mobil and Imperial Oil of Canada bid $600 million for an exploratory area on the Canadian side of the Beaufort Sea.