In 2007 the Arctic experienced a record summer sea-ice melt, evidence of a rapidly changing Arctic that portends an oncoming "scramble" by Arctic nations in search of Earth's remaining reserves of mineral and fossil deposits, now theoretically becoming recoverable as the ice recedes and permafrost melts. In August of 2007 Russia "planted" their flag on the sea floor in an attempt to preempt any competing claims to whatever lay beneath - and the race was officially on.
Since then, as ice continues to diminish in both extent and mass, wrangling for rights and boundaries between Arctic nations intensifies as access to the region increases. Once a seafarer's tall tale, the Northwest Passage has been navigated this short Arctic summer by Silent Sound, an ocean-going sailing Yacht more at home in the tropics of the South Pacific than the High Arctic. Last month two commercial freighters left Russian ports to traverse for the first time Russia's Northeast Passage. The Arctic is changing fast and the dance between nations on territorial rights struggles for advantage, mutual restraint an apparent impossibility.
In his new book The Scramble for the Arctic: Ownership, Exploitation and Conflict in the Far North, glaciologist and Arctic researcher Richard Sale explains in meticulous detail the history of human habitation in the region. Sale tells a story of how exploration and exploitation has historically been the relationship between southern nations and the people, flora, and fauna of the Arctic.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Sale from his home in London, and we discussed the Arctic and the ensuing inevitability of the coming "scramble," as well as the political will to make effective policy to deal with climate change and his optimism for the future.
Nothing to stop us
I asked Sale how optimistic he was that a full-scale assault on the Arctic might be averted, or if it was inevitable that the last, final gasp in search of resources to support an unsustainable energy economy would descend upon the region. For Sale, optimism is difficult.
"The lesson of history," says Sale, "Is that only under great duress will the privileged give up their privilege."
The Russian have the largest Arctic coastlines and are "keen" on exploiting fully the natural resources of the region, as demonstrated by the deep-water flag planting. It is unlikely any other nation will allow them uncontested access to all there is, or may be, to exploit. There is "nothing to stop us," says Sale.
Navigating legal waters
The history of human civilization leads north on a trail of migration and exploitation. But even today, laws governing jurisdiction of the region are sketchy at best. As global warming literally redraws the Arctic map, international law governing the interplay of national interests becomes more crucial with each passing season. As Sale explains in his book, the tangle of geopolitics have not kept pace with the accelerating environmental changes in the Arctic. All Arctic nations have some form of bilateral agreements, though those agreements are not recognized by all countries. But these agreements are often not actual treaties, and thus do not carry the force of international law, and confusion can result between what is internationally binding and just good faith gestures between countries for cooperation in the region that others countries might not recognize - or even the signatory countries as conditions change making the original agreement less desirable. The 1998 Agreement between the United States and Canada on Arctic Cooperation is one example.
Confounding all this is the ice itself. As it shifts, moves, and disappears, borders and territorial claims become even more contentious. The Arctic is clearly changing faster than any agreement or treaty thus far is able to fully cope, and the issues raised, both politically and environmentally, are racing - "scrambling" if you will - toward a flash point.
Fragile by nature - ruts frozen in time
Despite claims that drilling and mining environmentally is safe with advances in technology, the very nature of the Arctic itself makes dubious such claims. Pollutants from lower latitudes ride ocean and air currents northward, adding to the pollutants introduced from local metal mining and fossil fuel extraction. The rivers flowing from temperate climates carry with them agricultural chemicals, pesticides, and other industrial pollutants. All these pollutants are easily carried to the region, presenting a particularly tenacious problem for life in the Arctic.
These "persistant pollutants" find their way into the biological food chain, making all the links vulnerable to the ill effects of exposure. One study concluded that, due in part to the traditional diet of the Inuit, concentrations of PCBs accumulating in their bodies would classify their remains as "hazardous waste" if they were disposed of as "non-human" material. Another study found that mercury levels in Greenlanders are the highest ever measured in humans. The "bio-accumulation" factor - or the amount of pollutants an animal will acquire in its lifetime - is as high as 30 million in large mammals like polar bears and beluga whales (with sea water equalling a bio-accumulation level of 1).
And the land itself is fragile. The shortened growing season makes it more difficult for plants to recover from damage. The long Arctic winter minimizes biodegradation of chemicals and other pollutants, meaning they persist in the environment much longer than in temperate climates.
Even with improved drilling and mining techniques, damage is inevitable and just as with biological damage, persists longer in the environment. Ruts cutting through the Arctic tundra by wheeled and tracked vehicles leave scars on the land that deepen and widen, remaining unhealed for years or even decades. Hydrological cycles are interrupted, habitats bisected, animal populations isolated.
For many the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, and the disastrous environmental calamity it wrought, is all but forgotten, Sale lamented, but the effects of the tragedy linger in the environment to this day.
Whence goes the Arctic, goes the rest of the world
Does it really matter? A few animals with high levels of some chemicals, a few people ingesting toxins, a few tracks cutting across an immense wasteland beneath which are hidden vast stores of resources. Should we not grab what is there for the taking, so that we can continue as we have? If that is the route we are to take, as seems all but inevitable for Richard Sale, then at the least it is one we should take consciously. And we must accept the consequences. But there is still a choice - though not much time to make it.
"The Arctic goes," says Sale, "And we are not far behind."
For anyone interested in a thorough examination of the state of the Arctic and what it portends for the rest of the world The Scramble for the Arctic is a must read.