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There aren’t many wild frontiers left on Earth. Beyond wild, there are places that are nearly forgotten. As history has proven many times, as soon as one of those forgotten places is expected to have fossil fuels the popularity changes. The Arctic could be the next geopolitical land grab, as the warming world uncovers the seabed below. Is there anything valuable up there for U.S. citizens?
Who claims the land of the exact North Pole of the Earth? Last year, weekly news magazine, The Week wrote: “Denmark, Russia, and Canada claim sovereignty over the pole, and the U.K., France, and Norway have also planted flags. In 2007, Russian explorers dove 2 miles into the Arctic Ocean to plant their flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole.” (bit.ly/2kuSNMy)
The reason you can’t plant a flag on the surface of the North Pole is that the entire top of the earth is floating sea ice. A planted flag might drift or even sink, depending on the weather and season. Because of these factors, the childhood game of planting a flag to signal ownership is playing out.
Competing for natural gas
The article in “The Week” continues to describe the driving factor for the modern competition for the Arctic. There is potentially one fifth of the world’s natural gas in the ground below the Arctic sea ice. Historically, it has been very difficult to build oil and gas exploration that far North, because of the shifting sea ice.
As the planet warms, the sprawl of the ice is getting smaller and smaller, which is opening more potential shipping lanes. A “New York Times” article shows the potential shipping lanes that will be open by 2050 (nyti.ms/2pX88qk). Without special, ice-breaking ships, it may be possible to sail directly over the North Pole before mid-century. This could drastically improve the ability for northern countries to trade with each other but would also make a shortcut from Europe and the eastern U.S. to sail directly to Japan and China.
Below the shipping lanes are the reasons to build infrastructure on the northern coasts of the Arctic-adjacent countries. The “National Geographic” describes potentially trillions of dollars’ worth of “gold, diamonds, and rare earth metals—petroleum, natural gas, and fish.” (on.natgeo.com/2TzuIRR) Looking into the nearing future, some nations are pointing military resources north.
Norway, Russia, and China-funded deep-water ports are notable developments, according to the “National Geographic.” (on.natgeo.com/2YU4OOM) Russia has 51 functional icebreaker ships capable of crossing some sea ice, compared to five U.S. vessels. Two million Russians live in the Arctic territory. The largest U.S. city in the Arctic has just over 4,000 residents. The article continues to describe U.S. and Canadian initiatives to prepare for a new boarder to defend. I would hope that instead of gearing up to send troops and resources to the frigid Arctic, we should all be ignoring the area. Oddly, the Arctic is most valuable to humans pristine, wild, and snow-white. Keeping the Arctic frozen is better than any resource exploration alternative.
The Arctic is important, because it reflects sunlight well. Similar to the way you feel cooler wearing a white shirt on a bright summer day than you would wearing a black shirt, this reflective quality known as the “albedo effect” keeps the North and South Poles cool.
NASA describes the effect, “Albedo is a measure of the reflectivity of the Earth's surface. Ice-albedo feedback is a strong positive feedback in the climate system. Warmer temperatures melt persistent ice masses in high elevations and upper latitudes. Ice reflects some of the solar energy back to space because it is highly reflective. If an equivalent area of ice is replaced by water or land, the lower albedo value reflects less and absorbs more energy, resulting in a warmer Earth.” (go.nasa.gov/2ou3Chi)
Under a moderate climate change scenario, the average volume of sea ice in the Arctic would be able to fill about 75 percent of the Grand Canyon by 2045. While that may seem like a lot, the average volume of sea ice from 1985 to 2000 was about three full Grand Canyons in volume, as shown in a graph from The New York Times. (nyti.ms/2pX88qk)
The melting of the Arctic sea ice won’t cause sea level rise. Since the ice is in the ocean already, not sitting on top of dry land, the ocean levels don’t change. However, without the shiny, white reflective surface of the Arctic, the ice on top of dry land in Greenland and Antarctica may melt faster. That is the major problem for sea level rise. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the ice on Greenland alone is about three times the size of Texas. They estimate that the ice volume on Greenland melting would cause the sea level to rise 20 feet. (bit.ly/1JFKaog)
The Arctic Council is a group of eight nations that border the Arctic Oceans working together to determine the future of this wild space: “In the Council’s founding document, the Ottawa Declaration, the eight Arctic States affirmed their commitment to protect the Arctic environment and healthy ecosystems, to maintain Arctic biodiversity, and to conserve and enable sustainable use of natural resources. This commitment is underscored in the extensive scientific work of the Arctic Council’s six Working Groups.…”
I feel like I have seen this Arctic Council movie before. It starts with a group of explorers shaking hands and going out of their way to proclaim their noble intentions. Then suddenly, one of them gets a glimpse of gold, and starts backing away from the group slowly, as if to take a private phone call. Every member gets more suspicious of the others, and before you know it, a political bar fight has broken out. Quentin Tarantino-style gun pointing, and deceit follows. Without a doubt, any treaties or agreements held with the native peoples of the north would be disregarded to open the first mega port in the Arctic.
It doesn’t have to be this story. While cheaper natural gas may be helpful for our heating bills in the U.S., it comes at a heavy cost if the source is the Arctic. The best thing we can do in the Arctic and for human life on Earth is to film an occasional nature documentary and otherwise leave it alone.