Climate Change

Polarising the polar

Ravaged by global warming, an ice-free Arctic is going to become the next battleground for economic hegemony

By S S Jeevan
Published: Monday 15 May 2017

Twenty-five years from now, if you were to run a Google search to find news results about the Arctic region this is what you are likely to find: it will be raining, not snowing!

Yes. There will be unprecedented high precipitation, which would turn the white landscape into green. Instead of ice reflecting sunlight, sunlight would penetrate the melting ice and enable phytoplankton colonies to thrive under icy waters, making them unavailable to sea creatures that depend on them for food.

That’s not all. Permafrost—frozen soil—would have taken over the entire natural terrain; changes in vegetation would be releasing even more greenhouses gases in the atmosphere; and, shifts in snow and ocean water distribution would be causing catastrophic changes in the global weather systems. Parasites and diseases hidden deep inside the Arctic snow for centuries would be infecting human populations.

Because the Arctic will be crowded—people, infrastructure, housing colonies, offices and hotels would occupy snow cleared lands. Even the Arctic Ocean will be ice free, and so will be the lands surrounding it. Oil and gas companies—some of whom have already set up shops there—would be digging to extract the estimated 90 billion barrels of oil, 47.3 trillion cubic metres of natural gas and many precious minerals.

The region would also be buzzing with ships, as a new Northern sea route would be transporting more goods across the globe, cheaper and quicker, than the present route through the Suez Canal. And forget space and moon travel, the Arctic would be among the hottest holiday destinations, offering hitherto unseen sights to tourists. Already, package tours are available on the net.

Meltdown challenge

Forget what will happen beyond 2040, the region is already at a tipping point. That’s what latest scientific reports are establishing. Carbon dioxide concentrations are at record levels, 400 parts per million. The vast floating sea ice is rotten; the melting season has extended by 30-40 days than the average; and, with every passing year, snow cover is declining rapidly. In June, 2016, it dropped by 18 per cent since 1979.

The repercussions are unimaginable. If all the ice in Greenland were to melt, global sea levels will rise by about 7 metres. This rapid melting of the ice caps would not just submerge many small island nations, but would cause climate disruption as far as in the Indian Ocean, disrupting wind and current patterns, while playing havoc with the monsoon timing in India.

Project Clamer, a collaboration of 17 institutes in 10 European countries, says the meltdown will result in unprecedented freshwater being released—it could flush out the Arctic Ocean waters into the Atlantic. This would not only impact global and local weather and cause unparalleled damage to coastal communities, but will also affect the salinity of ocean waters threatening the very existence of several marine species.

Slippery response

But the irony cannot be missed. While the Arctic region is physically presenting a dark trailer of climate change, the world’s response has been economic, not ecological. Let’s take a look at what’s on the table.

To begin with, new trading alliances and partnerships are being forged by the Arctic countries—USA, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Canada and Denmark (Greenland). These countries have made grand plans to exploit the fallout of global warming: by investing in business in a fragile region. Some countries have even dumped their own earlier stated positions. US President Donald Trump is planning to issue an executive order to start drilling in the Arctic, going against former president Barack Obama’s ban. Even China, which is not an Arctic country, is forging partnerships with Arctic countries for exploitation. In April this year, the presidents of China and Finland laid the blueprint for a range of business ventures in the Arctic. Similarly, Russia and Norway have buried their age-old boundary dispute and strengthened their military partnership in the region.

India too is not far behind. In March this year, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Russia’s Gazprom Neft signed a pact to explore a hydrocarbon production project. In fact, Neft has already produced 100 million barrels of oil at one of its four oil wells in the Arctic. Oil major Shell too has spent over US $6 billion in drilling operations. Russia plans to produce 10 million barrels of oil per day by 2020. Canada has 49 oil and gas fields, and is planning to extract rare earth materials. But none of these countries or companies has put in place a precautionary plan in case of an oil spill. Moreover, many countries are building ports in the region to speed up transportation.

To pay lip service to the environment, some countries, including Canada, are planning to build renewable energy projects to reduce the Arctic’s high dependence on diesel for energy use. Researchers are also constructing energy efficient housing models as the population is set to increase manifold. Though the actions of the rich countries are unforgivable, even global bodies have failed to take note—UNESCO has not listed even a single World Heritage site in the Arctic. It is a pity that a window to under-stand the impacts of climate change is being broken to open an ecologically unsustainable economic door.


16-31 DECEMBER, 2012

The Arctic has found its way to the centre of the issues which will challenge and define our world in the 21st century: energy security and the struggle for natural resources, climate change and its uncertain speed and consequences, the return of great power competition and the remaking of global trade patterns.

We know the Arctic is warming much faster than other parts of the globe. What we do not know yet and what is crucially important for us to understand, is how much the warming of the Arctic may itself accelerate global climate change.


16-31 MAY, 2012

The global warming-ravaged Arctic is somewhat different. It provides a refuge for an interesting cross-section of the world: many individuals and cultures on the fringes have gravitated to the Arctic. The region is in many ways akin to the early US—a melting pot bringing together people seeking an identity. The laws are loose and there are enough marginalised people willing to rough it out for a better future, a brave new world.

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