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When the ice melts

Book>> The Future History Of The Arctic • by Charles Emmerson • Random House • Rs 599

By Madhav Aravind
Published: Monday 31 December 2012

imageThe book under review is titled somewhat inappropriately. Going by it, one would assume The Future History of the Arctic is a prognosis of the icy realm’s geopolitics. But the book also has a rich description of the Arctic’s past.

Historian Charles Emmerson’s account seamlessly intertwines history, travelogue and an analysis of the Arctic’s geopolitics. He guides us through Russia, Alaska, Norway, Greenland and Iceland, considering their histories during the past century or so, and offering some tentative proposals about what might happen in future. We visit the logbooks of the early Polar explorers and travel a few decades back to the times of the Cold War when the idea of the Arctic as pristine wilderness was giving way to the quest to mine its resources.

We are introduced to Fridtjof Nansen, the great Norwegian explorer who played a pivotal role in opening up the far North. Nansen was a scientist, doctor and a diplomat who became the first man to cross the Greenland plateau (on skis) in 1888 and later made an astonishing attempt to reach the North Pole by deciding to allow his ship to become entombed in ice floes. These, he calculated, would slowly drift towards the pole. Other Arctic experts denounced him as a fool. His ship would be crushed and his men lost. Nansen was right, however, and only bad luck prevented him from becoming the first person to reach the North Pole.

Emmerson suggests that as the ice melts, the Arctic will become the world’s newest geopolitical flashpoint. This is, in fact, happening even today. 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.

Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen played a pivotal role in opening up the far North

The major regional players, the US, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway, are starting to vie for access to and the control of the territory’s natural resources and shipping routes. Emmerson does not foresee a Cold War-style rivalry with contenders grouped in blocks. He foresees a scramble, a veritable free for all. Legal structures can help determine the course of such competition but they remain a muddle so far as the Arctic is concerned.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, can address some territorial concerns. But there is a roadblock familiar to any student of geopolitics: the US has not ratified the convention and is unlikely to do so soon. All this is associated with the mother of all geopolitical determinant of our times: climate change. Emmerson is alive to that. “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,” he writes.

The Future History of the Arctic is likely to have wider readership: historians, policy buffs and scientists.

Madhav Aravind is a PhD candidate at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi

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