The Coming Arctic Boom

As the Ice Melts, the Region Heats Up. Excerpts from a July 2013 Foreign Affairs article written by Scott G. Borgerson. Good read.

The ice was never supposed to melt this quickly. (…) In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that Arctic summers would become ice free beginning in 2070. Yet more recent satellite observations have moved that date to somewhere around 2035, and even more sophisticated simulations in 2012 moved the date up to 2020. Sure enough, by the end of last summer, the portion of the Arctic Ocean covered by ice had been reduced to its smallest size since record keeping began in 1979, shrinking by 350,000 square miles (an area equal to the size of Venezuela) since the previous summer. All told, in just the past three decades, Arctic sea ice has lost half its area and three quarters of its volume. 

It’s not just the ocean that is warming. In 2012, Greenland logged its hottest summer in 170 years, and its ice sheet experienced more than four times as much surface melting as it had during an average year over the previous three decades. That same year, eight of the ten permafrost-monitoring sites in northern Alaska registered their highest-ever temperatures, and the remaining two tied record highs. (…)

The region’s melting ice and thawing frontier are yielding access to troves of natural resources, including nearly a quarter of the world’s estimated undiscovered oil and gas and massive deposits of valuable minerals. Since summertime Arctic sea routes save thousands of miles during a journey between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean, the Arctic also stands to become a central passageway for global maritime transportation, just as it already is for aviation. (…)

Most cartographic depictions conceal the Arctic’s physical vastness. Alaska, which U.S. maps usually relegate to a box off the coast of California, is actually two and a half times as large as Texas and has more coastline than the lower 48 states combined. Greenland is larger than all of western Europe. The area inside the Arctic Circle contains eight percent of the earth’s surface and 15 percent of its land. 

It also includes massive oil and gas deposits — the main reason the region is so economically promising. (…) Initial estimates suggest that the Arctic may be home to an estimated 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil and gas deposits, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. These riches have become newly accessible and attractive, thanks to retreating sea ice, a lengthening summer drilling season, and new exploration technologies. 

Private companies are already moving in. Despite high extraction costs and regulatory hurdles, Shell has invested $5 billion to look for oil in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, and the Scottish company Cairn Energy has invested $1 billion do the same off the coast of Greenland. Gazprom and Rosneft are planning to invest many billions of dollars more to develop the Russian Arctic, where the state-owned companies are partnering with ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Eni, and Statoil to tap remote reserves in Siberia. (…)  Moreover, [the fracking] boom has also reached the Arctic. Oil fracking exploration has already begun in northern Alaska, and this past spring, Shell and Gazprom signed a major deal to develop shale oil in the Russian Arctic.

Then there are the minerals. Now, longer summers are providing additional time to prospect mineral deposits, and retreating sea ice is opening deep-water ports for their export. The Arctic is already home to the world’s most productive zinc mine, Red Dog, in northern Alaska, and its most productive nickel mine, in Norilsk, in northern Russia. (…)

Alaska has more than 150 prospective deposits of rare-earth elements, and if the state were its own country, it would rank in the top ten in global reserves for many of these minerals. And all these assets are just the beginning. The Arctic has only begun to be surveyed. Once the digging starts, there is every reason to expect that, as often happens, even greater quantities of riches will be uncovered.

The coming Arctic boom will involve more than just mining and drilling. The region’s Boreal forests of spruces, pines, and firs account for eight percent of the earth’s total wood reserves, and its waters already produce ten percent of the world’s total fishing catch. Converted tankers may someday ship clean water from Alaskan glaciers to southern Asia and Africa. (…)

As the sea ice melts, once-fabled shipping shortcuts are becoming a reality. (…) Although the Northern Sea Route has a long way to go before it siphons off a meaningful portion of traffic from the Suez and Panama Canals, it is no longer just a mariner’s fantasy; it is an increasingly viable seaway for tankers looking to shave thousands of nautical miles off the traditional routes that go through the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Gibraltar. It also provides a new export channel for warming farmlands and emerging mines along Russia’s northern coast, where some of the country’s largest rivers empty into the Arctic Ocean. (…)


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