The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future - Laurence C. Smith (2010)
Flying into Fort McMurray
My nose was pressed against the rear window glass of a Boeing 747. It was a direct flight from Edmonton to the booming new oil city of Fort McMurray, Alberta, in the broad belt of boreal forest that girdles the globe through Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia. The scene below morphed from urban concrete to canary-yellow canola fields, then gradually from fields to a deep shag carpet of evergreen forest jeweled with bogs. The forest was crisscrossed here and there by roads, and patched with clearings, but grew more desolate by the minute. In under an hour, the transformation from urban metropolis to farmland to wilderness was complete.
Then, suddenly, the woods dissolved into gleaming homes, the newest residential subdivision of Fort McMurray. Freshly cut survey lines radiated outward in all directions through the woods. Bulldozers and work crews ground away at roadbeds and building pads, engraving a sort of master blueprint into the landscape for hundreds more homes in waiting. Small wonder. The median price of a home in Fort McMurray had just surged to $442,000, more than $100,000 higher than in my home city of Los Angeles.1 The aggressive transformation taking place beneath my window was just one of many I was about to see over the next fifteen months.
This was not my first trip to the North. I’d already been studying cold, remote places for fourteen years, beginning with a doctoral dissertation studying the Iskut River, a tree-tossing torrent that rips through a remote corner of British Columbia. Something about the rawness of the place, the sense of danger and frontier, hooked me hard. The sight of fresh grizzly-bear footprints, smashed just minutes before over my own, was a shivery thrill. I finished school, became a geography professor at UCLA, and started a long series of research projects in Alaska, Canada, Iceland, and Russia.
My specialty was the geophysical impacts of climate change. In the field I would measure stream flows, survey glacier snouts, sample soil, and the like. Back home in Los Angeles I would continue the research from my desk, extracting numbers from satellite data like little digital polyps. But all this would change in 2006. The flight to Fort McMurray was the beginning of my attempt to gain deeper understanding of other phenomena now unfolding around the northern quarter of our planet, and how they fit in with even bigger global forces reverberating throughout the world as a whole.
From my scientific research, I knew that amplified climate warming had begun in the North, but what might that mean for the region’s people and ecosystems? What about its ongoing political and demographic trends, or the vast fossil fuel deposits thought to exist beneath its ocean floors? How would it be transformed by even bigger pressures building around the world? And if, as many climate models suggest, our planet becomes one of killer heat waves, fickle rain, and baked croplands, might new human societies emerge in places currently unappealing for settlement? Could the twenty-first century see the decline of the southwestern United States and European Mediterranean, but the ascent of the northern United States, Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia? The more I looked, the more it seemed this northern geographic region was highly relevant to the future of us all.
I was about to burn through almost two years of my life going to places you’ve heard of, like Toronto, Helsinki, and Cedar Rapids, and others you maybe haven’t, like High Level, Tromsø, and the Belcher Islands. I was about to fly on helicopters and airplanes, rent cars, ride buses and trains, and live on a ship. My goal was to see with my own eyes what is happening with these places, and to ask the scientists, business owners, politicians, and ordinary residents who live and work in them what they saw happening and where they thought things might be heading. After studying it for years, I was about to discover the North—and its broader importance to our future—for the very first time.