In the final part of this 3-part series on the Arctic region, the future of this fragile ecosystem will be discussed, along with the challenges it is set to face as climate change forcings begin to ramp up. Discussions with Dr Jack Landy of the Bristol Glaciology Centre, with a look to how tourism and geopolitics come into play are also brought into the equation. The Inuit, local communities and additional shipping research findings were provided by Ocean Conservancy and independent polar scientist, Henry P Huntington.
Since the 19th century, the Arctic has been a contentiously contested region of the world. The first geopolitical tussles were started between Canada and Russia as Canada – in 1925 – was the first country to extend a sovereign claim towards the North Pole. The following year, the USSR extended its claim of the region, and so the carving up of the Arctic began. Geopolitical and sovereignty claims have since expanded over the years to include the United States and Denmark; it’s widely accepted that – since the 1960s – the US, Russia and the Kingdom of Denmark, by way of Greenland, have become the key geopolitical players in the Arctic region.
Many modern sovereignty claims are beginning to overlap on multiple fronts between the dominant nations acting in the region. The Arctic is a huge source of oil and gas as well as mineral reserves – in a global context, the Arctic holds around 13% of the world’s untapped oil reserves and around 30% of untapped natural gas reserves. The Russian Geographical Society calculates that over 400 oil and gas fields have been discovered north of the Arctic Circle. As annual sea ice extent continues to shrink and new areas, previously hidden and untouched due to the ice and snow-cover become exposed.
Adding to this mix, a growing militarisation of the Arctic region; Russia has recently begun to reopen Cold War era stations and deploying early warning missile systems as well as, back in April of this year, completing building work on the 150,000 sq ft military training facility (paywall), the ‘Arctic Trefoil Base’, in the Franz Josef region to the SE of the Arctic region. The US, in comparison, has been far more tempered in its approach to the Arctic – throughout the Obama Administration the focus was directed towards the continued protection of the Arctic region for global science and research, instead of a show of force through military dominance, as Russia has shown since the late 2000s, often aggressively so. Whether this stance will change under the Trump Administration remains, currently, to be seen.
Complicated geopolitical disputes within the respective countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones – set at 200 nautical miles (ca. 230 miles) from the shore of the country in question – are increasingly commonplace as the annual sea-ice extent continues to shrink and previously undiscovered oil, gas and mineral resources are discovered. An example; the Lomonosov Ridge – previously claimed by the Russian state back in 1948, a ruling later referred to the UN by Canada – is now a disputed region between Canada, Russia and Denmark. This resource-rich ridge was claimed in the years following the end of the Second World War by the then USSR; Stalin named the Ridge after the prominent scientist and writer, Mikhail Lomonosov.
From the recent discovery of an abandoned Nazi military base in the Arctic area of Alexandra Land (within the Russian zone), to Cold War military stations set up by the Russian and US forces during the Cold War in the face of nuclear war, the Arctic, politics and military have been interlinked for decades. A top-secret United States Army Cold War mission, identified as Project Iceworm, in which three nuclear silos were built on the northwestern coastline of Greenland – without the knowledge of the Kingdom of Denmark – have recently been identified. Under the guise of an Arctic research station, missiles in these silos would have been able to strike the USSR if Khrushchev hadn’t blinked in the nuclear stand off with the US’s John F. Kennedy in 1962. It has been predicted that the missile defence outposts will be revealed by the shrinking ice-sheet within the next 20-30 years.
In terms of scientific research, several satellites currently in orbit hold the key to understanding and monitoring of polar ice extent, thickness and other physical variables; CRYOSAT-2, ESA and GRACE (NASA) are undoubtedly the most noteworthy. The volume of sea-ice in the Arctic region is widely accepted to have been on a downward trend since the 1970s, with multiple research studies and scientists confirming with evidence from the CRYOSAT-2 satellite and PIOMAS (Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modelling and Assimilation System).
One such result of increasing global warming due to climate change, is to shipping in the Arctic region. Areas such as the Northwest Passage – the route between China and the US’s eastern-most land borders, within the Arctic Circle, as identified in the below map – previously covered by decades thick sea-ice that would not thaw enough to allow vessels passage until the summer months, have been accessible much earlier in the year. The Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica became the fastest vessel to pass through the Northwest Passage in July 2017 in record time, taking just 24 days to travel 10,000km between Vancouver and Nuuk, the capital of Greenland; the record was previously held by a Canadian Coast Guard vessel, the Louis L. St-Laurent, back in 2008. Shipping through the Northwest Passage is a lucrative opportunity for the international shipping industry because it cuts transport distance between China and the US down by 4,000km/2,500 miles compared to traditional routes.
The polar scientist Henry P. Huntingdon, previously of the Pew Charitable Trust, believes that shipping through the Bering Strait – an ocean channel within the Bering Sea, between the easternmost tip of Russia and the westernmost border of Alaska – will increase over the coming years, bringing a raft of environmental and conservation questions. From oil spills to potential damage to the seafloor, the disruption of ocean migration routes by a commercial ship’s sonar system are just a few of the possible problems that could arise. Huntingdon also points at the challenges faced by local Inuit and other native communities in adapting to climate change and the shrinking of sea ice, chief among them the shortening of hunting windows in the Arctic region. Freedom of movement across the ice has also been seen to shrink for natives, something that will continue to have a serious impact on the survival and adaptation of such communities.
It is not only a growing number of commercial shipping vessels that are cause for concern; tourism in the Arctic is also on the rise, with several high-volume vessels currently in operation around the region. The Crystal Serenity is such a commercial liner. With 1,000 berths, an onboard casino and a price-tag of $350m, it is one of the many tourist ships vying for wealthy tourists wishing to see the Arctic region up close. Travelling to the Arctic without an icebreaker, the Crystal Serenity instead depends on the services of British Antarctic Survey research vessels in the area. While the arrival of such commercial liners to remote native communities could provide a welcome source of income, it requires communication between the cruise company, the local communities and the scientific research ships in the region at the time.
The RRS Ernest Shackleton, is such a research vessel and continues to act as an escort ship for the tourist cruises moving forward. It can carry emergency water and rations for the tourist vessels, as well as over 500 crew members and the tools needed to contain oil spills and other such environmental disasters. The availability of this layer of protection, should a tourist vessel need it, is a welcome safety precaution but could, in the event of an incident, take away precious research and transit time for the scientific vessel. Which should be given priority; the research projects at the time or the safety of a commercial liner?
The main concern moving forward is the near-complete lack of disaster response infrastructure available within the region were an incident to occur. Will the Arctic be the latest region to be affected in the same way Alaska was when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker split its hull in 1989, spilling 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound? As climate change becomes more harshly felt in the Arctic, the increasing competition for shipping, drilling and military positioning will only continue to compound.
Whether the pristine scientific research environment, and the scientist teams operating in the area, can be maintained to operate in tandem with increasingly commercial interests remains an ongoing concern.
If you’d like to read the rest of the Arctic Series, please head here.
If you’d like to read more about sea-ice and how it affects the feedback system in the Arctic, please visit the National (US) Snow and Ice Data Center’s walkthrough here.