What a melting Arctic means for the world

What a melting Arctic means for the world
Image: Illustration by James Daw
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Table of contents

The great melt | The science of melt | Jostling nations | What could possibly go wrong?

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The great melt

Ordinarily, in January, the waters of the Arctic ought to be encrusted with ice: thick, daunting ice, the kind that resists nearly every ship on earth. This past January, though, the Christophe de Margerie sailed the Arctic herself. When she slid out of the north Russian port of Sabetta, she had a helpful companion to cut through it—a nuclear icebreaker—but for the most part, her deep blue, 299-meter body cleaved through the ice on her own.

In 11 days, the de Margerie reached the Chinese port of Jiangsu, not far from Shanghai, where she emptied herself of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) she carried; then she sailed home, east first and then north, back through the Bering Sea and along the Northern Sea Route. In a video shot mid-voyage, the de Margerie looks elegant but spooky: a ship that appears to glide on frozen land, until the ice cracks to reveal the water beneath. It’s like watching a blue whale glide across the savannah.

The journey was unprecedented. In bygone times, the Northern Sea Route was navigable only from July to November, but the changing climate has both prolonged the sailing season and shrunk the ice cover in the deepest part of winter. The de Margerie’s journey proved that the Arctic is already open for business year-round—”that year-round safe navigation is possible along the entire length of the Northern Sea Route,” said Igor Tonkovidov, the president of Sovcomflot, which ran the de Margerie on its voyage.

As novel as this Arctic passage was, though, it was destined to happen. The warming climate, brought to us by decades of uninhibited carbon emissions, was always going to ensure a certain level of icemelt across the Arctic. And that wholesale transformation of terrain will, in turn, change our relationship with the Arctic.

Some will see new opportunities. Around 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are thought to lie untapped in the Arctic; most of this is offshore, in areas that will turn more accessible as ice melts. New shipping lanes will appear. Russia aims to send 80 million tons of freight through the Northern Sea Route by 2024; China can send goods to Europe through the Arctic instead of the Suez; cruise lines are planning more frequent polar trips. There are veins of metals and minerals: rare earths in Greenland, and nickel, scandium, and copper on the bed of the sea.

In tandem, environmental concerns will become even more pressing. Populations will shift and resettle—some voluntarily, some less so. Four million people live in the Arctic already: indigenous communities, township residents, hunters, herders. Their lives, already in flux as the planet warms, will become doubly unsettled by waves of new economic activity. “That’s the way it goes with climate change,” Malte Humpert, the founder of a think-tank called the Arctic Institute, said. “The million-dollar question is: What will countries do?”

Above all this change hangs the prospect of nations vying to economically or politically dominate the Arctic. The countries that abut the region, or that have professed a vested interest in it, are among the richest and most powerful in the word: the US, Russia, the Scandinavian nations, Canada, the UK, China. There is no grand, multilateral treaty or legal regime that exhorts states to play well together here, the way they’ve agreed to do in the Antarctic.

In this void, governments can forge ahead to secure their interests—sometimes in ways that recall the great capitalist-colonial scrambles of the 19th century, and sometimes in ways born of the 21st. What countries do with the Arctic—how they negotiate their national ambitions against a collective well-being—will reveal plenty about the world’s capacity to solve the problems of climate change.

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The science of melt

Last September, Boris Bukhanov flew from Moscow to Arkhangelsk, on Russia’s north-western coast, where the Dvina river washes into the White Sea. Bukhanov is a graduate student at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, and in Arkhangelsk, he and 67 others boarded a ship to begin weeks of climactic and oceanological studies in Russia’s Arctic waters.

On the sea bed below these waters, the permafrost is degrading. Bukhanov knew that already from previous studies—and knew also of what he calls “large seeps,” the earth unloading methane through the cracking permafrost into the water and atmosphere. His team found more evidence of that last year, in the Laptev Sea, before turning back for Arkhangelsk. They wanted to outrun the new ice that forms and thickens upon the Laptev Sea late every October—but they needn’t have worried. For the first time in recorded history, the Laptev Sea remained open through the month. In a photo that Bukhanov took, the surface of the water is covered only in some slender disks of ice, like frozen lilypads.

Broken lilypads of ice in the Laptev Sea, September 2020
Broken lilypads of ice in the Laptev Sea, September 2020
Image: Boris Bukhanov

In 2020, air temperatures along the coast of the Laptev Sea reached 8 degrees Celsius above average. This sea is often called the “nursery” of Arctic ice: On average, nearly 200,000 square miles of ice formed here drifts westwards into the Arctic Ocean, often past Svalbard and towards Greenland. A warmer Laptev Sea is a dangerous sign: an indicator of dire Arctic scenarios to come.

By volume, the Arctic has a quarter of the sea ice it carried 40 years ago, said Alek Petty, a researcher at NASA’s Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory. “We expect the Arctic will become ice-free in the next few decades,” Petty said, although he meant something specific by it: ice-free defined as fewer than a million square kilometers of ice measured in September. “The big debate is about when that will happen, but it’s a ‘When’ rather than an ‘If.’”

New climate projections show that moment arriving sometime around the year 2050. “But in the scientific community, there’s still a worry that these models are missing some processes, which might mean an ice-free Arctic sooner,” Petty said. The physics of icemelt is still being refined. How do waves act upon packs of ice as the ice thins, for instance? How do melt ponds spreading over the surface of ice every summer hasten additional melting?

Seasonally, Arctic ice acquires a meter (3.3 feet) or so of thickness every winter. “We don’t expect two or three or four meters in a single winter. There’s a limit,” Petty said. As the years have warmed, summers have grown longer, and the Arctic has entered its winters with less and less ice. As a result, even the seasonal addition of the meter-odd of new winter ice cannot stem the decline of ice cover.

The effects vary somewhat across the region. The thickest ice lies near Canada and Greenland, Petty said. “There’s a trendy new term for that: ‘last ice area.’ It’s the oldest ice clinging on for dear life.” So the Northwest Passage—the Arctic route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans over Canada—will remain difficult to traverse for much of the year. On the Russian side, though, “we see younger, thinner ice that tends to be more mobile and prone to melt,” Petty said. So the Northern Sea Route, running over the top of Russia, will be navigable sooner.

And when, by Petty’s technical definition, the Arctic summers turn ice-free, humans will have to contend with more spiraling climate worries. Without ice to reflect sunlight, the oceans will absorb more solar radiation and warm the planet further; ocean currents change, and the runoff from melting glaciers will raise sea levels. Companies, though, will be able to send ships right through the center of the Arctic Ocean, over the North Pole. Petty pulled out a map: a projection of shipping traffic through the Arctic center in 2045-60, in an extreme warming scenario. The routes snake in electrified blue between the Asian and American landmasses, over the top of the world. There’s no ice to be seen.

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Jostling nations

In 2007, a Russian submersible dived deep into the water near the North Pole, where it planted its flag on the sea bed, at a depth of nearly 4,200 meters. The gesture had all the optics of a staked claim, but it carried no legal weight. Countries can’t just claim the sea bed under international waters with a flag on a titanium pole.

What was far more significant, though, was the submersible’s main mission, said Sergei Vinogradov, a maritime law scholar at the University of Dundee. It was on a quest to map the sea bed, to prove that Russia’s continental shelf extends far out into the Arctic—which, in turn, could allow Russia to add dozens of miles of new territorial waters to its sovereign fold.

Among the many ways in which the Arctic is unlike the Antarctic is in the matter of sovereignty. The Antarctic and its waters belong to no one. The Arctic, though, is bordered by eight independent countries, each able to claim the waters off their coasts and the resources beneath. The region is covered, as a result, by a patchwork of regulations, said Surabhi Ranganathan, a senior lecturer in international law at Cambridge University. “There are treaties for fishing rights, standards for pollution, and so on,” she said. “But the one overarching agreement is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

UNCLOS, as practitioners refer to it, offers a measure of rules and norms that nearly every country agrees upon. (The US is one of the few countries that has not ratified UNCLOS.) From its coast, 12 nautical miles out, a country owns its territorial waters. Its economic zone can run up to 200 miles out, giving it rights to all the resources on the sea bed or under it. But if a country can prove that its continental shelf keeps going as one unbroken geological formation beyond the 200-mile limit, it can claim an additional 150 miles. Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway are all trying to find scientific evidence to validate extensions to their economic zones.

The eight Arctic states, as well as indigenous community groups and some observer nations like China, belong to the Arctic Council, a loose, independent forum that sounds powerful but is in fact mainly concerned with environmental protection and safety in the region. For the most part, its workings are amicable, said one official delegated by his government to one of the Council’s task forces. (He asked to remain anonymous.) But the Council exerts no control over geopolitical disputes—the kind that has brewed for years between Canada and Denmark over Hans Island, near Greenland—or commercial quarrels. For those contingencies, the official said, governments have their own plans. His government certainly does. “I think it’ll all work fine—until it doesn’t,” he said. “If something were to unfold—let’s say if China were to militarily do something in the Arctic—we’d respond appropriately. We’ve got all of the What Ifs worked out.”

But plenty can happen without outright military skirmishing—and Russia will have a lot to do with that. Roughly half of Russia’s federal budget revenues come from oil and gas, and as the country with the longest Arctic coastline, it is assiduously preparing to tap those fossil fuel deposits. Russia is a signatory to the Paris Agreement and aims, by 2030, to reduce its emissions to 70% of its 1990 levels. But analysts have called this a “weak” target, noting that the country still plans to expand its oil and gas sectors. By 2035, Russia wants to be producing 10 times the volume of gas it was producing in the Arctic in 2018—the very year, coincidentally, that a $27 billion LNG plant opened in Sabetta, 71 degrees north.

The Russian state owns stakes in several oil and gas firms, so exerting control over the region is a commercial as well as national enterprise. “They’ve been developing a sizable fleet of icebreakers, some with arms-carrying capacity,” said Marc Lanteigne, a political scientist at the Arctic University of Norway. “They’re reopening old Cold War bases to monitor parts of the Siberian coast.” Malte Humpert, of the Arctic Institute, mentioned “major radar installations” and new airfields capable of hosting nuclear bombers. Russia’s approach to the Arctic, he said, has become a key new part of its foreign policy—and thus of tensions between Russia and the West.

Despite pressures to shrink their carbon footprints, Western and Chinese energy companies are just as interested in the Arctic’s fuels as Russia’s. Total, the French energy giant, and CNPC, China’s state-owned gas company, each own 20% stakes in the Sabetta LNG plant. BP owns nearly a fifth of Rosneft, another Russian oil and gas firm. The Norwegian state-owned company Equinor, which has sunk more than 100 wells north of the Arctic Circle, plans to keep drilling.

If companies aren’t rushing north at this very moment, that’s only because the economics don’t quite work out—yet. The price of oil has fallen in recent years, and Arctic ice still makes it expensive to pull oil and gas out of the earth. But that will change as the climate warms and as the extraction of fossil fuels gets cheaper. “What we’re seeing,” Lanteigne said, “is a slow-motion scramble.”

Governments will participate in this scramble as well—are already participating, in fact. The companies eyeing the Arctic are so large, and so often state-owned, that they serve as proxies for their governments, their narrow industrial interests providing a cover for their states’ projections of power. In this, they recall colonial corporations like the various East India Companies; indeed, when Donald Trump offered to buy Greenland, he may merely have been voicing the West’s collective colonizing id.

At other times, though, governments are pressing their suits in more modern ways. China is designing what it calls a Polar Silk Road, building out infrastructure and maritime capacity in the Arctic. And it is sizing up resources and countries strategically, just as it does in Africa. A recent election in Greenland revolved around the debate to mine rare-earth metals and uranium. The mine in question is operated by an Australian firm, 10% of which is owned by a Chinese company with close ties to the Chinese government.

The effects of these forays into the Arctic will be marked. They’ll manifest in further changes to the environment—the kinds of changes that are bringing about the icemelt in the first place. And, as in the colonial era, they’ll affect the people who are indigenous to the Arctic, and who call it home.

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What could possibly go wrong?

Opening the Arctic up for business risks damaging its delicate ecological balance further still. Every time a government permits more drilling or pipeline-laying in the wilderness, as the Trump administration did in Alaska, the environmental effects cascade: salmon runs impeded, old-growth forests logged, oceans and lakes polluted, caribou migration interrupted. In 2020, the melting permafrost in Siberia led to the collapse of a tank of diesel oil in a mining facility. The spill saw 21,000 tons of oil pour into Arctic soil and water.

Among the major threats the Arctic faces is black carbon: particulate matter thrown off by the burn of dirty shipping fuel, which settles on ice. Shrouded by these particles, the ice reflects less solar radiation and melts faster.

As shipping in the Arctic rose between 2015 and 2019, emissions of black carbon increased 85% over that period, said Bryan Comer, a researcher with the International Council on Clean Transportation. “In 2017, we published a study that estimated the black carbon emissions in 2025—and that number has already been eclipsed,” Comer said. Russia and Canada both plan to ramp up their shipping through the Arctic: Russia to move its oil and gas, Canada to move iron ore extracted from mines like the one on Baffin Island, just southwest of Greenland. “There are going to be larger ships, and more trips by larger ships.” Several countries are resisting calls to phase out the kinds of shipping fuels that emit the most black carbon, and have wangled waivers to use these fuels until 2029.

The Arctic Council knows emergencies are coming. One working group is already analyzing shipping routes, trying to figure out how to protect the marine environment from damage. Another is preparing for maritime accidents, said Ben Strong, who chairs the Arctic Council’s Search and Rescue Expert Group.

But for a truly big oil spill in the Arctic, there’s very little chance of a clean-up operation, experts have said. No viable techniques exist to clean oil from ice. “We saw during Deepwater Horizon, whenever the seas are over four feet, our ability to mechanically remove oil was virtually impossible,” Admiral Paul Zukunft, the former commandant of the coast guard, said at a symposium in 2017. “Four-foot seas up there [in the Arctic] would probably be a pretty darned good day, so certainly environmental conditions weigh heavily in addition to just the remoteness.”

The demographic profile of the Arctic will change dramatically as well. As eastern Russia melts, the government is keen to use the newly thawed soil to grow food—and is trying to entice Russians from elsewhere to migrate there. (It hasn’t been easy; workers have been so hard to find that the government even wants to welcome Indians, Turks, and Afghans as migrant labor.) Townships like Sabetta, built around new oil and gas plants or new ports, will attract workers as well, especially as these once-frigid regions become warmer and more livable.

In these transformations, the indigenous communities of the Arctic will have to fight to be heard. Victoria Hermann, the managing director of the Arctic Institute, cites as an example the Nenet, the largest group of indigenous people along Russia’s Arctic coast. “They’re reindeer herders and living in small coastal fishing villages,” Hermann said. When industry arrives, “it’s unlikely they’ll be consulted.” And it isn’t as if they’ll automatically find employment with oil rigs and ports either, she added. “In North America too, I think you’d hear that there’s a lack of sincere consultation.” Last year, after the US Army Corps of Engineers closed a comment period on its proposal for a new port in Nome, Alaska, an association of Alaska tribes protested that its feedback was going unheard.

And the tribes’ own traditional resources are failing them. “The water and soil gets contaminated,” Hermann said. “You’re jeopardizing the plants that reindeer rely on, and also the berry-picking and the fishing.” In 2013, the historian Bathsheba Demuth wrote in her book Floating Coast, the Alaskan village of Gambell went hungry, “the ice too far off and unstable to hunt walruses.” The villagers had to set up a PayPal site for donations. “You’re going to see all these rural communities having to move to bigger cities,” Hermann said. The US government has identified 31 Alaskan villages as being in need of relocation because of flooding concerns.

When Hermann goes out to work in the field in Arctic villages, she sees how people living there are already meeting daily threats to their livelihoods from climate change. “They feel this on a very intimate level. The loss of thick ice that you can hunt or fish from—that’s felt immediately,” she said. “People are wondering where their children will go in the next two decades. They’re wondering if their community is viable or not. They’re wondering: ‘Will we exist?’”

Over a slightly longer horizon of time, a version of that question applies to the rest of us as well. The failure of humans to safeguard the environment has brought about the perilous state of the Arctic. How we handle the melt at the top of the world, and by extension the teetering health of our climate, will determine the kind of future humans have upon this planet.