One if by Land, Two if by Sea - THE PULL - The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future - Laurence C. Smith

The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future - Laurence C. Smith (2010)


Chapter 6. One if by Land, Two if by Sea

In August 2007 the Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Rossiya broke a path to the North Pole, the research vessel Akademik Fyodorov trailing closely behind. An opening was cut through the sea ice and two tiny submarines lowered by crane into the freezing water. Their crews then dove 4,300 meters—more than two and a half miles beneath the ice—to the floor of the Arctic Ocean. A robotic arm collected samples and planted a titanium tricolor Russian flag directly into the yellow mud of the northernmost spot on the planet. “The Arctic is ours,” declared Artur Chilingarov, the polar explorer, oceanographer, and Duma politician who led the expedition and also went down in one of the subs.321 Vaguely remembered for rescuing a stuck polar ship in the 1980s, he became an instant celebrity; President Putin later awarded him a gold Hero of Russia medal.

For the next several months, the world proceeded to go crazy about Russians staking out the North Pole. Western politicians spluttered in outrage. “This isn’t the fifteenth century,” Canada’s foreign minister Peter MacKay told a crowd of television reporters. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say: ‘We’re claiming this territory.’ ”322 Media reports framed the story as a thinly veiled grab for natural resources, citing a recent comment by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist Don Gautier, who had ballparked that the Arctic could hold up to one-fourth of the last undiscovered hydrocarbons remaining on Earth. The presumption was that Russia had fired the opening salvo in a new sovereignty race for vast riches of untapped oil and gas—resources desperately needed to support the world economy in the coming century—thought to lie beneath the frigid seafloor of the Arctic Ocean.

Despite being closer to the Rossiya than just about anyone else on Earth, I had no idea what was going on. I was cut off from the outside world, steaming north through an empty ocean a thousand miles north of Toronto. At the moment the titanium Russian flag was inserted, I was probably either sleeping or hosing off stinky plankton nets. It was several days before I even heard about it.

I was living aboard the CCGS Amundsen, a smaller icebreaker of the Canadian Coast Guard, which was headed for Hudson Bay and ultimately the Northwest Passage. My daily routine revolved in a painted metallic world less than a hundred meters long and twenty wide, with erratic rotating shifts of sleep, work, and cafeteria. We had launched with great fanfare from Quebec City just six days before the Russian flag-planting incident.

I hadn’t fully grasped what a big deal these scientific icebreaker cruises are. A crowd milled alongside the ship and news crews swarmed the ship’s officers and chief scientists. I spotted Louis Fortier, the director of ArcticNet 323who had invited me along, surrounded by television cameras. He pumped my hand and told me to enjoy myself before being spun around for another interview. A crane lifted the gangplank and the expedition’s first rotation—forty scientists, thirty-five crew members of the Canadian Coast Guard, and a handful of journalists—waved at the mass of people standing onshore. Horns blared, a gleaming red helicopter circled overhead, and the two crowds yelled good-byes over the widening slice of water. As we pulled away down the St. Lawrence Seaway, I was surprised to see a few camera crews (and Louis) still milling around on deck. Were they joining the expedition, too, I wondered? Twenty minutes later my question was answered. The ship’s helicopter, which had been buzzing around the ship, landed on the aft helipad and ferried them back to Quebec City.

That first night at sea, there was quite a party. Off-duty crew ditched their crisp military blues to mingle with the scientists in shorts, T-shirts, and halter tops. The room steamed, a stereo thumped, and everyone got at least mildly inebriated. American icebreaker cruises are dry, but the Canadians open a beer bar two nights a week. This early in the expedition, the selection was astonishing. I bought two bottles of Kilkenny and set out to learn more about the rare caste of scientist called oceanographers. I found one and we shouted back and forth about marine stratification, ocean sampling, the sexual habits of right whales (quite promiscuous), and the sexual habits of cruise scientists (apparently, also so). It was a great time. But by the third beer, when she had touched my arm twice, I figured it was time to leave.

Three weeks later, after a grueling round-the-clock schedule of moving, anchoring, crane operating, water sampling, and laboratory work, we disembarked in Churchill, Manitoba. A new rotation of scientists and crew were waiting excitedly to board the ship. It felt strange to give up my tiny cabin, familiar narrow hallways, and new friends to a bunch of strangers. But our rotation was just the first of many. The Amundsen was in her first leg of a historic 448-day journey, the longest scientific cruise ever undertaken in the Arctic. Over the next fifteen months she would cycle through some two hundred people and shock the world by gliding easily through the Northwest Passage. At a cost of $40 million, the expedition was Canada’s biggest contribution to the 2007-2009 International Polar Year.324 While less splashy than the titanium Russian flag, Canada, too, was asserting its presence in the new Arctic Ocean.

Who Owns the North Pole?

Unlike the Amundsen expedition, Chilingarov’s dive to the North Pole was privately funded and really just a daring stunt. But that didn’t stop the flag-planting from triggering an international commotion. Russia’s response was that the flag was merely symbolic: The United States once planted a flag on the moon—did anyone seriously consider that a declaration of legal sovereignty? Her real claim to the North Pole was not from a flag, but from the geological samples collected by this and many other Russian expeditions in the Arctic. These data would prove that the Lomonosov Ridge—an underwater mountain chain, rising some three thousand meters above the seafloor, that bisects the Arctic Ocean—was geologically attached to Russia’s continental shelf. This would win her sovereignty of a huge chunk of ocean floor—possibly including the North Pole—in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

UNCLOS and geology are critically important to this story, as we shall see shortly. But in late 2007 the world’s eyes were transfixed by that flag, not sediment samples. The great global economic contraction was still a year away. Energy demand was soaring and resurgent Russia, fueled by hundred-dollars-a-barrel oil and Putin’s steely gaze, was growing increasingly assertive on the world stage.

Two months later, when the news hit about the record-shattering low in the amount of summertime Arctic sea ice,325 the image of uncorked shipping lanes, vast new energy reserves, and Russians planting flags in a brand-new ocean proved too much to resist. Arctic fever went viral. Headlines and pundits declared that a new colonial race for the frontier—a “mad scramble” for control of the Arctic Ocean and its vast presumed resources—had begun.326

The perception that vast quantities of valuable natural resources lie awaiting in the North is not without merit. Most of its land surface has yet to be prospected for minerals; the Arctic Ocean seafloor is among the least mapped on Earth. Some of the world’s biggest mines are dug into Alaska and Siberia; one of the purest iron ores ever found was recently discovered on Canada’s Baffin Island.327 The discovery of diamonds in the Northwest Territories in 1991 sparked the biggest North American staking rush since the Klondike and propelled Canada from having no diamonds at all to becoming the world’s third-largest producer almost overnight. No one really knows what the new Arctic Ocean biology will be, but a longer open-water season can only mean more photosynthesis, more complex food webs, and the prospect of valuable new fisheries there. There are staggering volumes of gas hydrate—a sort of solid methane dry-ice that accumulates in the pore spaces of ocean sediments and permafrost—which no one has yet figured out how to recover but is plausibly a coveted fossil fuel of the future.

The plainest prize of all is natural gas and oil. The Arctic’s broad continental shelves are draped in thick sequences of shale-rich sedimentary rock, an ideal geological setting for finding oil and gas. Prospects for natural gas are particularly high. In 2008 and 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey released new assessments concluding that about 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its undiscovered oil lies in the Arctic, mostly offshore in less than five hundred meters of water.328 These numbers are huge considering the region as a whole covers just 4% of the globe. The USGS assessments conclude it is more than 95% probable that the Arctic holds at least 770 trillion cubic feet of gas, with a fifty-fifty chance it contains more than double that. To put these numbers into perspective, the total proved gas reserves of the United States, Canada, and Mexico combined is about 313 trillion cubic feet of gas. The global economy consumes some 110 trillion cubic feet per year.

Between the 2007 and 2008 sea-ice retreats, the Russian flag-planting, and the new USGS hydrocarbon assessments, it didn’t take long to hear rumbles about an arms race—or even outright war—over the Arctic Ocean. “There is simply no comparable historical example of a saltwater space with such ambiguous ownership, such a dramatically mutating seascape, and such extraordinary economic promise. Without U.S. leadership … the region could erupt in an armed mad dash for its resources,” offered Council on Foreign Relations (a prominent American think tank) analyst Scott Borgerson, writing in Foreign Affairs. “The rapid melt is also rekindling numerous interstate rivalries and attracting energy-hungry newcomers, such as China, to the region. The Arctic powers are fast approaching diplomatic gridlock, and that could eventually lead to the sort of armed brinkmanship that plagues other territories.”329Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, asserted, “The Arctic must become Russia’s main strategic resource base,” and “it cannot be ruled out that the battle for raw materials will be waged with military means.”330 The prestigious Jane’s Intelligence Review concluded, “Military competition is likely to increase, with Russia and Canada increasing their deployments and exercises, while there appears little opportunity for diplomatic resolution of the disputes.”331

Could competition for hydrocarbons really spark a military buildup in the Arctic? Militarization has happened there before, after all. During the Cold War, it was a place where American and Russian forces played cat-and-mouse war games with spy planes and nuclear-armed subs, and built remote outposts to detect long-range bombers. It was a theater of military intrigue and brinkmanship, the stuff of spy novels and movie thrillers like Ice Station Zebrawith Rock Hudson and K-19: The Widowmaker with Harrison Ford.

The end of the Cold War marked the end of the thriller plots, and Arctic countries quickly downsized their militaries and lost interest in the region. Canada canceled its plan to buy as many as a dozen nuclear-powered submarines. The United States canceled a new class of Seawolf attack subs designed to fight beneath the sea ice. Most dramatically, the former Soviet Union simply parked its northern fleet in Murmansk and walked away.332 But by 2009, nearly two decades later, a military revival was stirring. All eight NORC countries—Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden—were either rebuilding their militaries and coast guards or at least pondering new security arrangements in the region.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was speaking often about reasserting Canada’s sovereignty over her northern territories and the Northwest Passage,333 and backing it up with new ice-strengthened patrol ships, a military training base in Resolute Bay, and a $720 million icebreaker. Norway was acquiring five new frigates armed with Aegis integrated weapons systems, and nearly fifty American-made F-35 fighter jets. Russia had refurbished its northern fleet and announced plans to expand it with new attack submarines, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, and enough ships to man five or six aircraft carrier battle groups by the 2020s. Russia had also resumed long-range bomber patrols along the airspaces of Canada, Alaska, and the Nordic countries for the first time since the Cold War. On the eve of U.S. president Barack Obama’s first visit to Canada, two Canadian Air Force jets were scrambled—perhaps overzealously—to meet an approaching Russian bomber.334 Even Iceland, nearly bankrupted by the global financial crisis, was pondering how to bolster its security. Finland, Denmark, and Sweden were considering new alliances with each other, or even possible membership in NATO.335

The United States—dubbed the “reluctant Arctic power” by political scientist Rob Huebert at the University of Calgary336—was not growing its northern military power as noticeably. Its Polar Star icebreaker was out of service; a replacement was scrapped from the Obama administration’s omnibus stimulus bill.337 However, America had never downsized its northern forces as much as the other Arctic countries after the Cold War. It still maintained some twenty-five thousand army, air force, and coast guard personnel in Alaska and had even begun conducting naval exercises offshore.338 One of the United States’ two controversial missile defense complexes (intended to shoot down incoming ICBM missiles) was installed at Fort Greely in Alaska. Perhaps most telling of all was a presidential directive quietly issued in January 2009, during the final days of the Bush administration. This little-noticed document sharply redefined U.S. policy in the Arctic for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

This “National Security Presidential Directive/NSPD 66, Homeland Security Presidential Directive/HSPD 25,” or, more compactly, “Arctic Region Policy,”339 was crafted exclusively for the Arctic, a significant change because all previous directives had lumped it and Antarctica together. Equally significant was its elevation of “National security and homeland security needs” to priority position #1 (out of six)—a return to Cold War prioritization. To political scientists, these changes are significant and signal a growing American strategic interest in the region.

War in the Arctic?

We’ve seen that current trends in rhetoric, defense spending, and written policy all point to a renewed militarization of the North. That is the trend. But what about war? Huebert believes that the world is beginning to perceive the Arctic as the “next Middle East” in terms of fossil hydrocarbon energy.340 Is it also the next Middle East in terms of fault lines for conflict? After all, jostling militaries imply heightened risk of incident; and conflicts needn’t even be about the Arctic to erupt there—the region could also become an expanded theater for global tensions and antagonism, as happened during the Cold War.

This last scenario is certainly not the case today. Whether it develops in the future depends on the choices of future political leaders and thus lies outside the bounds of our thought experiment. But what of intrinsic pressures within the Arctic itself ? Is the “mad scramble” so fevered, the oil and gas assessments so compelling, the retreating ice and new shipping lanes so transformative, that extreme tension or violent conflicts in the region become inevitable?

There are good reasons to think not. One is a persistent trend of northern cooperation over the past two decades. A second is a legal document of the United Nations that is fast becoming the globally accepted rulebook on how countries carve up dominion over the world’s oceans.

The story of the first begins October 1, 1987, with a famous speech delivered in Murmansk by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Standing at the gateway of his country’s strategic nuclear arsenal in the Arctic Ocean, Gorbachev called for transforming the region from a tense military theater to a nuke-free “zone of peace and fruitful cooperation.” He proposed international collaborations in disarmament, energy development, science, indigenous rights, and environmental protections between all Arctic countries.341 The choice of Murmansk, the Arctic’s largest and most important port city and the heart of the Soviet Union’s military and industrial north, was highly symbolic. Just as the sea ice would experience a record-breaking melt exactly twenty years (to the day) later, the Cold War thawed first in the Arctic.

Four years after the Murmansk speech the Soviet Union dissolved. The Russian Arctic, which had been totally closed off from the world, plunged into a horrible decade of decimated population and economy, but new opportunities to interact with outsiders opened. After a half century of iron-walled separation, aboriginal Alaskan and Russian relatives become reacquainted across the Bering Strait. Siberians, if they had the money, could travel abroad, while western scientists—including myself—could enter and work in formerly closed parts of the Russian North. New international collaborations and foreign cash342 were a rare bright spot for many suffering Siberians. All around the Arctic, new collaborations and groups were born. Aboriginal groups, most notably the Inuit, began to organize politically across international borders.

In 1991 all eight NORC countries—the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia—signed a landmark agreement to cooperate on the region’s pollution problems, and scheduled regular meetings to actually accomplish something.343 Five years later the Arctic Council was formed,344 an intergovernmental forum whose membership includes not only the NORCs but other observer countries and interest groups as well. While voiceless in matters of security, it is now the premier “Arctic” polity in the world. In sum, the 1990s were a time of unprecedented cooperation between northern countries operating at many different levels.345

Despite the hype about mad scrambles and looming Arctic wars, that cooperative spirit has persisted. The early twenty-first century saw the Arctic Council release the influential “Arctic Climate Impact Assessment” (a consensus science document, modeled after the IPCC assessments) requiring collaboration and sign-off from all of its members.346 A multitude of international collaborations was completed, without drama, during the International Polar Year. A major study of the region’s current and future shipping potential—again requiring international cooperation and sign-off by the eight NORC countries—was completed in 2009.347 The list of other examples of successful cooperation and integration between supposed adversaries, on things like search-and-rescue, environmental protection, aboriginal rights, science, and public health, is long.

To be sure, the thorniest matters—national security, sovereignty, and borders—have been (and continue to be)348 scrupulously avoided. But unlike the past, the Arctic today is no longer a place of suspicious neighbors, armed to the teeth, who don’t talk to each other. Instead, there is in place a remarkably civil international network, one that is working cooperatively and effectively at many levels of governance.

The Rule of Law

The second reason to doubt the eruption of an Arctic War lies in UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Contrary to popular perception the Arctic is not a ruptured piñata. On land, its international political borders are uncontested. For the Arctic Ocean, there are now clear procedural rules for laying claim to its seabed, and indeed any other seabed. Most importantly, just about every country in the world seems to be following them.

UNCLOS was negotiated over a nine-year period from 1973 to 1982 and has emerged as one of the most sweeping, stabilizing international treaties in the world. As of 2009 it was ratified by 158 countries, with many more in various stages of doing so. Of the eight NORC countries, seven have ratified UNCLOS. The one glaring holdout—the United States of America—is obeying all UNCLOS rules and sending signals that it will eventually ratify the treaty. It therefore constitutes one of the most agreed-upon rulebooks in international law and is a highly effective agent of order.

The cornerstone of UNCLOS is the creation of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending from a country’s coastline for 200 nautical miles (about 230 statute miles) outward into the ocean. A country has sole sovereignty over all resources, living and nonliving, within its EEZ. It has the right to make rules and management plans and collect rents for the management and exploitation of these resources. The invention of these zones has greatly reduced “tragedy-of-the-commons” overfishing and other resource pressures and disputes in the world’s coastal oceans.

That’s not to say UNCLOS is perfect. Now, disputes break out over island specks because they anchor a claim to a 200 nm radius circle on the surrounding seafloor. Tiny Rockall—literally a barren rock peeking out of the North Atlantic—has been claimed by the United Kingdom, Ireland, Iceland, and Denmark. Denmark is also tussling with Canada over Hans Island, another speck sitting between the two countries in the Nares Strait off Greenland. The convoluted coastlines of Russia and Alaska open a doughnut hole of high seas in the midst of their Exclusive Economic Zones, into which Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Poland pour fishing trawlers.349 Finally, border disputes arise over how the two-hundred-nautical-mile extension is to be drawn with respect to other boundaries. Canada, for example, extends the ocean border as a straight-line extension of its land border with Alaska, whereas the United States draws the line at right angles to its coastline. This creates a smallish disputed triangle (about 6,250 square miles) of overlapping claims to the Beaufort Sea. In the Barents Sea, Norway and Russia had quite serious overlapping claims but announced resolution of the conflict in 2010.350 These are not insignificant disputes but, relative to the mess of conflicts existing prior to UNCLOS, manageable ones.

Beyond the two-hundred-nautical-mile limit are the high seas, their resources controlled by no one. However, UNCLOS Article 76 allows a special exception. If a country can prove, scientifically, that the seafloor is a geological extension of its continental shelf—meaning that it is still attached to the country’s landmass, just underwater—then the country may file a claim with a special U.N. commission to request sovereignty over that seabed even beyond the two-hundred-nautical-mile limit.351 Article 76 lays out a clear and orderly procedure for doing this. Because the Arctic Ocean is small, has unusually broad continental shelves, and is mostly encircled by land, it is unique among the world’s oceans in that a great deal of it could potentially be carved up into these extended zones. Russia, Denmark, Canada, Norway, and the United States352 are the sole countries with frontage on the Arctic Ocean. These five countries are thus well positioned to win control over large tracts of its seafloor and any hydrocarbons or minerals it may contain.

The key words here are scientific and orderly. The case for an Article 76 claim must be documented exhaustively with petabytes of scientific data. Foremost is a detailed mapping of seafloor bathymetry—its topographic relief—from multibeam hydrographic sonar. Seismic surveys, using explosives or blasts of compressed air to send shockwaves into the seabed, trace out the deeper subterranean geology. Sediment samples, like the ones grabbed by Chilingarov’s tiny submarines at the North Pole, are used to establish geological provenance. And so on.

All of this takes years of costly research, but there is a process to it and eventually it gets done. Norway submitted its EEZ extension claim in 2006 and was approved in 2009.353 The United States, Canada, Denmark, and Russia are still busily mapping, with Russia closest to being done. Canada will file by 2013 and Denmark by 2014. Because the United States hasn’t ratified UNCLOS yet, it will likely be last to file but has already gathered much of the required hydrographic sonar and other data from the Healy icebreaker, work led by Larry Mayer at the University of New Hampshire.

After all this work and expense, small wonder that these five countries—Russia, Denmark, Canada, Norway, and the United States—recently banded together to issue the “Ilulissat Declaration,” an assertion that existing international laws are perfectly sufficient for working out their territorial disputes in the region. Everything’s cool, no new Arctic treaties are needed—or wanted. Now, would everyone else—like the European Union—kindly butt out?354

These five powers are signaling that UNCLOS is the law of the Arctic Ocean, just like any other ocean. They are heeding its procedures for sovereignty claims to its seafloor, in the same manner as the many other Article 76 claims inching forward around the world. None are interested in relinquishing their existing right to make these claims. There will be no new “Arctic Treaty” with shared international governance, as exists in Antarctica. And centuries of legal precedent tell us that once the boundary lines get set, they will stay set. In Southern California today, property lines set by early ranchos have persisted through centuries of rule first by Spain, then Mexico, then the United States.

So how will it all pan out? The bathymetric and geological data are still being collected, but Russia has the longest coastline and the broadest continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. This optimal geography will win sovereignty over very large tracts of seabed and most of the natural gas promised by the U.S. Geological Survey assessment.355 Canada is positioned to more than double its offshore holdings northwest of Queen Elizabeth Island. The United States will expand dominion in a triangular wedge extending due north of Alaska’s North Slope, winning control of some of the Arctic Ocean’s most promising oil-bearing rocks. Norway has secured chunks of the Norwegian and Barents seas and will share claims with Russia in the gas-rich Barents Sea.

But Norway has no shot at the North Pole and neither does the United States. That prize—if it is a prize—hinges on the Lomonosov Ridge mentioned earlier in the chapter. This thousand-mile undersea mountain chain, roughly bisecting the abyss of the central Arctic Ocean, is the only hope for a continental shelf extension claim extending as far as the geographic North Pole. Russia, Denmark, and Canada are busily mapping it.356 But the importance of the North Pole seabed, a distant, heavily ice-covered area and unpromising oil and gas province at that, is primarily symbolic. Personally speaking, if it’s really necessary for any country to control the North Pole, then it seems only fair that it be Russia. Russia’s first hydrographic surveys date to 1933. No surface ship ever reached the North Pole until the Soviet nuclear icebreaker Arktika accomplished it in 1977. By the end of 2009 the feat had been accomplished just eighty times: Once each by Canada and Norway, twice by Germany, thrice by the United States, six times by Sweden, and sixty-seven times by Russia. Her Sibir icebreaker completed the first (and only) voyage to reach the North Pole in winter back in 1989. As far as I’m concerned, Russia has earned it.

Whether the science will reveal the Lomonosov Ridge to be geologically attached to Russia, or to Greenland (Denmark), or to Canada, or none of them, is unknown. What is known is that no one is bristling missiles over this. And there’s little reason to think that anyone will.

The Five-Century Dream

The dream is a northern shipping route between the Atlantic and Asia’s Far East, a quest spanning over five centuries since the English, Dutch, and Russians first began looking for it. The only alternative, until the Suez and Panama canals were built, was to sail all the way around the southern horns of either Africa or South America. Many intrepid souls died looking for a shorter route over the North American or Eurasian continents. Probing northwest (the Northwest Passage), their ships got stuck like bugs to flypaper in Canada’s perennially frozen northern archipelago, en route to the Bering Strait. Others died trying northeast (the Northern Sea Route), attempting to trace Russia’s long northern coastline to reach the Bering Strait from the other direction. Both routes have now been traversed many times but neither is a viable commercial shipping lane. However, a small amount of international traffic is stirring between Canada’s port of Churchill (in Hudson Bay) and Europe, and occasionally Murmansk.

Since the 2007 and 2008 sea-ice convulsions, the prospect of global trade flows streaming through the Northwest Passage, the Northern Sea Route, or even straight over the North Pole has become one of the most breathlessly touted benefits of global climate change. After all, those fifteenth-century navigators were geographically correct: Even after the Panama and Suez canals were made, the shortest shipping distances between Asia and the West would still lie through the Arctic Ocean.357

Lest we get carried away with visions of colorful sailboat regattas in the Arctic Ocean, keep in mind just how formidable sea ice is to the maritime industry. Only the largest heavy class of icebreaker like the Rossiya can break through it confidently.358 Canada has just two heavy icebreakers, the United States three. Russia—by far the world leader in this domain—is expanding its fleet to around fourteen. Seven are nuclear-powered, the largest and most powerful in the world.359 But icebreakers are costly and few. They require a strengthened hull, an ice-clearing shape, and serious pushing power, features not possessed by normal ships.360 There are barely a hundred of them operating in the entire world. The world’s other vessels, of course, number in the hundreds of thousands, but cannot navigate safely through sea ice.

However, there is a very real possibility that by 2050, if not sooner, the Arctic Ocean will become briefly free of sea ice in September, by the close of the northern hemisphere summer. The ice will always return in winter (much like the Great Lakes today), but this is nevertheless a radical transformation, one that will dramatically increase the seasonal penetration of shipping and other maritime activities into the region. For part of the year, it would change from being the domain of a handful of heavy icebreakers to that of thousands of ordinary ships.

One doesn’t need a fancy climate model projection to appreciate this. It’s already obvious today. On the following two pages, consider the seasonal cycle of shipping activity that already happens each year in the Arctic. When sea ice expands in winter, ships retreat. When it shrinks in summer, they advance.

Note the profound restriction that sea ice imposes upon shipping activity. Few, if any, vessels dare to enter the ice pack, but there are thousands of them poking and probing around its southern periphery (there were at least six thousand ships operating in the Arctic in 2004, the year that these two maps capture).361 In January, sea ice confines them to the Aleutian Islands, northern Fennoscandia, Iceland, and southern Greenland. Even the icebreakers retreat then. Only Russia did any serious icebreaking—to and from Dudinka, a port for the Noril’sk mining complex on the Yenisei River. But in July, when the ice melts, the ships pour in.

The Arctic Ocean will never be ice-free in winter, but summer shipping will last longer and penetrate more deeply. If it really does become ice-free by late summer, it should be briefly possible to sail a ship right over the top of the world.

Not all shipping companies are thrilled about the prospect of this. Take, for example, Northern Transportation Company Limited, northern Canada’s oldest Arctic marine operator. Since 1934 NTCL has been providing cargo transport down the Mackenzie River and all across North America’s western Arctic coast, from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Taloyoak in Nunavut. The bulk of their business is cargo transport to villages, oil and gas operations, mines, and offshore energy exploration. The company’s vice president, John Marshall, was kind enough to show me around their port in Hay River, on the shore of Great Slave Lake.


I was impressed. There were a hundred barges in operation, acres of other vessels parked, and a Syncrolift to raise huge ships entirely out of the water. Workers were swarming all over the barges to load them up and move them out. The company moves fast to capitalize on their short shipping season—only about four months—before the ice returns in October. But when I bounced the long-term climate model projections for sea ice off my host, I was surprised to learn he hopes to never see their simulations materialize. A longer shipping season on the Mackenzie would be wonderful, but an open Northwest Passage would allow competition in from the east. The sea ice blocking that passage, Marshall told me, was keeping his southern competitors out.363

If the Arctic Ocean becomes ice-free in summer, it will also affect maritime activities in at least one other important way. It spells the disappearance of so-called “multiyear ice,” the more obstructing of two forms of sea ice currently present there. “First-year” ice, as the name implies, is baby ice, less than twelve months old. It is one or two meters thick and relatively soft, owing to inclusions of salty brine and air pockets. While definitely dangerous, it is easily cleared by icebreakers and will not generally gore a properly handled vessel with an ice-strengthened hull. Importantly, first-year ice is also less damaging to the drilling platforms and other infrastructure needed to produce offshore oil and natural gas.364 But multiyear ice is hard and can grow up to five meters thick.365 It is utterly impassible to most ships and can foil even a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker.

In a world where all sea ice melts away each summer, multiyear ice will go extinct and icebreakers will go where they please. Ships with fortified hulls—and even ordinary vessels—would be somewhat safer.366 From a regulatory standpoint, this could lead to ships of a lower polar class being permitted to enter and operate in the Arctic.367 The Northern Sea Route (especially) and the Northwest Passage would become viable lanes. For a brief time window each year, it would become feasible to cross right over the North Pole in ice-strengthened ships. A dream come true.

Dream On

So by 2050 will global trade flows be pouring through the Arctic Ocean, as they do today through the Suez and Panama canals?

Impossible. Those operate 365 days per year with no ice whatsoever. At best the Arctic Ocean will become ice-free for a few days to a few weeks in summer and even then, there is no such thing as a truly “ice-free” Arctic Ocean. From autumn through spring, there will be expanding first-year ice cover, slowing ships down even with icebreaker escort. In summer, there will always be lingering bits of sea ice floating around, as well as thick icebergs calved from land-based glaciers into the sea (a glacier iceberg sank the Titanic, not sea ice). The Arctic Ocean will always freeze in winter—or at least we’d better hope so. If it doesn’t, that means our planet has become 40°F hotter and a lifeless scorched rock. Superimposed over all of this is ever-present natural variability, making the start and end dates of a part-time shipping season impossible to know with certitude.

The global maritime industry cares about many other things besides geographic shipping distance. It also cares about shipping time, cost, and reliability. To be sure, routes are shorter across the Arctic Ocean, but the travel speeds, owing to the danger of ice, are lower.368 If the region’s emerging regulatory framework demands that only polar-class ships be allowed in, then those vessels will cost considerably more than ordinary single-hulled ships. And how attractive will a short, unpredictable shipping season really be for today’s tightly scheduled global supply chains? What about the relative lack of emergency and port services, environmental liability for oil spills, or fees charged by Russia and Canada should they reaffirm their positions that the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route are not international straits?369 Might the Suez and Panama canals lower their prices in response to the new competition? There are many other factors controlling the profitability of transnational shipping lanes besides a shorter geographic route, available for an uncertain few weeks to a few months out of the year.

In imagining 2050, I do see many thousands of boats in the Arctic, but not humming through global trade routes as dreamed of in the fifteenth and early twenty-first centuries. Doubtless some international trade will be diverted through the region as the summer sea-ice retreats northward. It is happening now through the Aleutian Islands, Murmansk, Kirkenes, and Churchill. But few of the vessels I envision are giant container ships carrying goods between East and West.370 The thousands of ships I see are smaller, with diverse shapes, sizes, and functions. They are not using the Arctic as a shortcut from point A in the East to point B in the West. Instead, they are buzzing all around the Arctic itself.

Look again at the maps of what actually happened in 2004. The action was not through the Arctic, but in the Arctic. There were tankers, tugs, barges, bulk carriers (for ore), small cargo ships, and fishing boats. There were coast guards, oil and gas explorers, science expeditions, and many pleasure cruises. They were bringing in supplies to villages and mine outfits. They were fishing, hauling out ore, or looking for hydrocarbons. They were moving goods up and down rivers and through the Bering Strait. They were bringing tourists from all over the world to see one of the last truly wild places on Earth.371

With less sea ice, this diverse maritime activity will intensify. It will operate longer and penetrate deeper. It will become more economic to use boats to take food and heavy equipment north, and bring raw natural resources south to waiting markets. Mines located near a coast or an inland river will become increasingly viable. Already, South Korean shipbuilders, like Samsung Heavy Industries, are developing polar LNG carriers specially designed to work there. When those vast new offshore gas deposits are eventually developed, these ships will cruise right up to the wellheads. They will gorge on liquefied natural gas, then turn around and carry it to anywhere in the world.

Ten “Ports of the Future” Poised to Benefit from Increased Traffic in the Arctic

Shipping is the world’s cheapest form of transport. As its penetration grows and intensifies, we will see a growing maritime economy in the Arctic. On the opposite page is my qualified guess at ten ports that bear particularly close watching in the coming years. Other possible sleepers include Tuktoyaktuk, Iqaluit, and Bathurst Inlet in Canada; Nome in Alaska; Ilulissat in Greenland; and Varandey, Naryan-Mar, and Tiksi in Russia.

When the Amundsen docked in Churchill, I knew exactly what to do. While everyone else was milling around, saying farewells or asking for directions to the town’s famous Portuguese bakery, I dashed straight to the train station to ask if the tracks were OK. Just as I’d feared, they weren’t. I went immediately to the airport and scooped up one of the last seats on a flight to Winnipeg. I felt guilty because I had beaten out my former friends and comrades, who I knew could be stranded a week or more. But I had just been to Churchill six weeks before, and I knew they would enjoy themselves.

Churchill is famous for being the polar bear capital of the world—thousands of tourists descend on the town each October to watch them from heated buses out on the snowy tundra—but the place is even more incredible in summer. The snow is gone, the weather warm, and some three thousand white beluga whales move into the bay to feast on capelin and have babies. You can see the belugas distantly from the shore, but for eighty dollars a Zodiac tour will take you right out to them. The boil of white bodies leaping all around me, many with little gray calves hugging their backs, is one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen in my life.

Churchill’s other industry is shipping. It is the only northern deepwater seaport in Canada. It is also the closest port to her western provinces, where most of the country’s agriculture takes place. Wheat, durum, barley, rapeseed, feed peas, and flax from the prairies are loaded into train cars and sent to Winnipeg, where a spur line runs north for a thousand miles to Churchill on the shore of Hudson Bay. But despite its geographic advantage the port has never done very well. In 1997 the port, grain elevator, and 810 miles of railroad were bought for a pittance from the Canadian government by Denver-based OmniTRAX Inc., one of the biggest privately held railroad companies in North America. As part of the deal the company poured some USD $50 million in repairs and upgrades to its facilities and rail line.

When I first visited Churchill ten years after OmniTRAX took over, the port still wasn’t running at full capacity. Its general manager and Churchill’s mayor both offered that the reason was at least partially political.372 There was also a lingering perception that the Churchill facility could not handle steel hoppers (the industry standard) even after the necessary upgrades had been made. But the biggest problem of all was the rail line linking the port to Winnipeg. Even after millions of dollars in improvements, it was still unreliable. Allowable speeds were slow, and the tracks had to be closed often for repairs. The reason was not bad design, but thawing permafrost.

On Shaky Grounds

Permafrost is permanently frozen ground. It is ubiquitous around the Arctic and high elevations of the world, and extends surprisingly far south in the cold eastern interiors of Canada and Siberia (see maps on pages x-xiii). The topmost part thaws inches deep each summer, but beneath this so-called “active layer,” the soil stays hard and frozen year-round. As such, it offers a solid base on which to build roads, buildings, pipelines, and other infrastructure—so long as it always stays frozen. The trick is to not warm it up.

An entire subfield of civil engineering is devoted to building things on top of permafrost without somehow warming it. Houses are raised up off the ground on pilings, roads and railroad tracks are perched atop thick pads of insulating gravel, and so on. Oil pipelines require very careful design because flowing fluid generates a surprising amount of heat, and a ruptured pipeline is an environmental disaster. The world’s latest permafrost engineering feat, completed in 2006 at a cost of USD $4.2 billion, is China’s Qinghai-Tibet Railroad crossing the Tibetan Plateau from Golmud to Lhasa.

But no amount of clever engineering can stop regional permafrost from thawing from milder, snowier winters (snow insulates the ground). When that happens, unless the geological substrate is firm bedrock, the built structures are compromised. The substrate returns to the structural strength of wet mud, or peat, or whatever else it is geologically composed of. The ground slumps, roads buckle, and foundations crack.373 Pipelines and train tracks become kinked and wavy when they ought to be straight. Even slight undulations force trains to slow down greatly or risk derailment. The sluggardly speeds I’d noticed for parts of the Hudson Bay Express, the otherwise lovely two-night passenger train voyage from Winnipeg and Churchill, was because of this. Deeper kinks require closing down the tracks for repairs. That’s what triggered the line’s closure six weeks later, when I bailed on the train (and my Amundsen shipmates) and caught a flight instead.

Fortunately for OmniTRAX, only the last leg of its long railroad to Churchill lies over permafrost. But other built structures around the Northern Rim are not so lucky. From borehole thermometry and other measurements, we know that permafrost temperatures are generally rising.374 The endgame of this process is ground slumping, tilted trees, sinkholes, and other disturbances.

Already we see evidence of this from space. Using satellites, my UCLA colleague Yongwei Sheng and I mapped out a strange phenomenon now transforming vast tracts of western Siberia. This region famously holds thousands of wellheads supplying natural gas to international markets in Ukraine and Europe. Less famous are the tens of thousands of lakes that dot its surface like so many spilled marbles. By comparing recent satellite pictures of this region with those from the early 1970s, we discovered a landscape mutating as the underlying permafrost thaws, with many of these lakes disappearing into the ground.375

Theoretically, if all permafrost were to go away entirely, about half of the world’s northern lakes and wetlands might conceivably vanish.376 But permafrost thaw is a slow process, so that won’t happen anytime soon. Deep permafrost can extend hundreds of meters downward and requires centuries or millennia to defrost. But significant reductions are expected by 2050, with climate models projecting 13%-29% less permafrost area by then, and the depth of seasonal thawing increasing roughly 50%.377 These numbers are worrisome because from a practical standpoint, the settling and buckling problems commence even when permafrost first starts to thaw. Also troubling is the fact that permafrost ground is commonly stuffed with chunks and lenses of pure ice, which drain out, exacerbating the slumping. Already in Russia, damages to the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) Railroad have more than tripled. The number of threatened buildings ranges from 10% of all structures in Noril’sk to as high as 80% in Vorkuta.378 At the center of this book is a photograph of an apartment building destroyed by thawing permafrost. Just days after the first wall cracks appeared, this building collapsed.

The big message here is that climate warming presents a severe challenge to current and future physical infrastructure in northern permafrost areas. The structural strength of many soils will be reduced, threatening existing structures and making new ones more expensive to engineer and maintain. Some permafrost landscapes will slump, collapse, or suffer hydrological changes, rendering them even less appealing for human activities than they are now.

Projected losses by 2050 in (1) the structural integrity of permafrost soils, a threat to buildings and other permanent infrastructure; and (2) suitably freezing temperatures for the construction of temporary winter roads over wet or soft areas.

The map379 on the previous page illustrates the scale of this problem by midcentury. Part of it derives from a new model of permafrost load-bearing capacity developed by Dmitry Streletskiy, Nikolay Shiklomanov, and Fritz Nelson at the University of Delaware. Dark tones indicate reduced bearing capacities (structural strength) of permafrost soils associated with a middle-of-the road carbon emissions scenario, i.e., the “moderate” (SRES A1B) scenario described in Chapter 5. Widespread losses in Alaska, northern Canada, and most of Siberia suggest that problems of reduced ground strength to support pilings, building foundations, and other heavy installations will be particularly severe there.

The hatched lines on the map are unrelated to permafrost. They illustrate another sort of change that will occur, in places where the ground surface freezes less long and hard during winter than it does now. The repercussions of this are quite different from the threat to infrastructure posed by warming permafrost, as we shall see next.

Ice Road Suckers

The second way in which rising temperatures will make remote northern landscapes less accessible is by reducing our ability to travel on them using winter roads.

Winter roads, also variously called ice roads, snow roads, temporary roads, and other names, are a remarkably well-kept secret. As their name suggests, they are temporary features, requiring a hard, deeply frozen surface to work. Winter roads are used extensively in Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Sweden and are also used in Norway, Finland, Estonia, and several northern U.S. states. In truly remote areas they are the only kind of road at all. Yet, despite their importance, these transient travel lanes rarely show up on maps. Before the popular television series Ice Road Truckers was produced, few people even knew they existed. But in many parts of the North—especially wet, boggy areas—they are the only way to economically resupply villages, run construction projects, harvest timber, find oil and gas, or do just about anything. Away from rivers and coastlines the only other option is to use airplanes and helicopters, which are extremely expensive.

In contrast to its biological life, economic activity on northern landscapes springs to action in winter, after the ground freezes and ground vehicles can be brought in. With remote distances and low population densities, the cost of permanent roads is rarely justified. In contrast, even the most expensive of winter roads—built up like an ice-skating rink by repeatedly glazing it with water—costs 99% less to build.380 So in many remote areas, the road network is not fixed but an ephemeral ghost, expanding briefly each winter, then melting away again in the spring.

One famous winter road, featured in the first season of Ice Road Truckers, is the Tibbitt-Contwoyto ice road built each year in Canada’s Northwest Territories. It begins near the city of Yellowknife and runs six hundred kilometers northeast into Nunavut, supplying a string of highly lucrative diamond mines. This road traverses bog and lakes and can exist only for about two traffic-jammed months out of the year.381 During the other ten, the mines can be reached only by air.

Since 2003 one of the richest diamond strikes served by this road has been the Diavik Diamond Mine owned by Rio Tinto, a multinational mining conglomerate. At Diavik’s headquarters in Yellowknife, manager Tom Hoefer explained that the Diavik mine yields four to five carats of diamonds per ton of ore, one of the highest grades ever found (the world average is one carat per ton). To get at the diamonds, the company spent $400 million just to dike back an overlying lake that was in the way.382 Together with one of its neighbors, this mine currently generates about half of the NWT’s gross domestic product. But despite its high grade, without the Tibbitt-Contwoyto road, this mine would be uneconomic. “If we didn’t have this winter road we wouldn’t have these mines,” Hoefer told me. “It’s as simple as that.”383 Imagine trying to bring in all the heavy equipment, construction materials, and thousands of tons of cement mix by airplane. It just couldn’t be done.

For every Tibbitt-Contwoyto there are thousands of lesser winter roads vital to some economic activity or another. In Siberia I saw many long piles of deep sand running across the taiga. They are dormant winter roads and will lie there, useless and undrivable, until the deep freeze of winter returns so they can be graded again. Giant north-flowing rivers like the Ob’, Yenisei, and Lena in Russia, and Mackenzie River in Canada become ice highways in winter. In High Level, Alberta, I visited Tolko Industries—a major softwood producer for the U.S. building industry—and learned that their wood harvest relies on a fourteen- to sixteen-week winter road season. To the consternation of the company, that season has been gradually shortening over time. “We will lose our shirt” if the roads go away, their forester told me.384

Most resource extraction operations in the North already face tight profit margins from chronic labor shortages, long distances to market, and an environment that is both too harsh and too delicate. For industries where an entire year’s worth of profit must be made in a matter of weeks, even a few days lost is a serious blow. Because northern climate warming is greatest in winter, it uniquely targets this sector. Warm winters mean shorter winter road seasons and/or lighter allowable loads. Deeper snow means more insulation of the ground, further reducing the depth and hardness of its freezing. For all but the most lucrative operations, many industries will become increasingly uneconomic and finally abandoned.

The significance of this goes beyond the major Ice Road Trucker-type ice highways that are rebuilt in the same place each year. It means reduced access everywhere. Take, for example, off-road oil and gas exploration on the North Slope of Alaska. To avoid damaging thin tundra soil and vegetation,385 this can be done only in winter, when its soft, moist surface freezes hard. There’s simply no other way to drive on this environmentally sensitive ecosystem without tearing it apart. But since the 1970s the North Slope’s permissible off-road travel season has declined from over two hundred days per year to just over one hundred days,386 effectively cutting the energy exploration season in half.

Put simply, this is not a good century to be out working the land in remote interiors of the North. In permafrost, permanent structures will become even trickier to build and maintain than they are now. Despite ways of prolonging the life of winter roads,387 there’s no getting around the fact that milder winters and deeper winter snow will shorten their seasons, making many of them pointless to build for all but the most lucrative projects—the NWT diamonds,388 for example, or natural gas pipelines. Already we see delayed openings and earlier closures harming smaller outfits operating on tight margins.

Extraction industries will favor projects nearer the water. Looking ahead, our northern future is one of diminishing access by land, but rising access by sea. For many remote interior landscapes, the perhaps surprising prospect I see is reduced human presence and their return to a wilder state.