Future of the Environment

Demystifying the Arctic

Ethan Huntington
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The Arctic has been receiving a lot of attention lately. Some say the Arctic states, eying the region’s vast potential oil and gas deposits, could be headed for a conflict. Environmentalists have launched social media campaigns to ban further industrial development of the region. Local communities view development with mixed opinions – after all, it’s their homeland.

So many people – most well-intentioned — have so many opinions on the Arctic that it becomes difficult even for experts to figure out what is true and what isn’t about the world’s most northerly region.

One thing is certain – the changing climate is generating an array of challenges and opportunities in the region for government, business and many others.

The World Economic Forum’s Council on the Arctic recently discussed five of the most pervasive myths about the Arctic and its development:

Myth one: The Arctic is an uninhabited, unclaimed frontier that is not regulated or governed.

The Arctic is home to some four million people and an annual US$ 230 billion economy under the shared jurisdiction of eight countries – Russia, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Greenland/Denmark, Canada and the United States. Even when venturing offshore in the Arctic Ocean, most coastal waters fall within existing exclusive economic zones with further extensions being dealt with by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In other words, the Arctic is neither an unclaimed, contested place nor a closed military zone. It is governed by national structures and abides by international frameworks.

Myth two: The region’s natural resource wealth is readily available for development.

Natural resource development in the Arctic is impeded by many different types of challenges including technical, infrastructural, economic and environmental. Although inhabited and governed, the region still lies on the fringe of the industrialized world’s trade arteries and can almost be described as the next emerging economy. Resource extraction is never a simple operation and becomes many times more complex in polar environments, requiring high levels of investment and the development of specialized technologies. Furthermore, the region is not homogeneous in terms of development potential. Strong distinctions exist between onshore and offshore environments, and between different regions and countries with regard to current levels of infrastructure, population, environmental sensitivity and accessibility.

Myth three: The Arctic will be immediately accessible as sea ice continues to disappear.

The opposite will become true on land. Winter roads are an essential element of infrastructure and allow transport of raw materials excavated from the Arctic south into global distribution hubs. But thawing permafrost destabilizes the ground on which these roads are built. Even in the Arctic Ocean, sea ice is not the sole obstacle – others include polar darkness, poor charts, lack of critical infrastructure and navigation control systems, low search-and-rescue capability, high insurance/escort costs and other non-climatic factors. The related myth that climate change will create an ice-free Arctic Ocean year-round is also false, as sea ice will always form during winter and ice properties and coverage will vary greatly within the region.

Myth four: The Arctic is tense with geopolitical disputes, is the next flashpoint for conflict

The Arctic region is a powerful example of international collaboration. The region’s countries largely conform to standard international treaties, meet at regional forums such as the Arctic Council and use regular diplomatic channels to resolve differences. The widely publicized seafloor extensions now underway for the Arctic Ocean, for example, are completely science-based and not particularly controversial. The parties involved follow the same UN procedure used to settle other continental shelf disputes around the globe. Some members of the Forum’s Council on the Arctic consider the region to be the foremost example of international collaboration for sustainable development.

Myth five: Climate change in the Arctic is only of local and regional importance

Simply put, the Arctic’s climate is not changing because of increased activity in the region; it is changing because of activities  around the world that manifest quite visibly in this highly vulnerable region. Furthermore, when the Arctic’s environment changes because of occurrences outside the high north, this has many global repercussions. These include faster sea-level rise owing to greater ice loss from the Greenland ice sheet, altered weather patterns caused by perturbation of jet streams, altered planetary energy balance due to lower light-reflectivity of formerly snow/ice covered surfaces, increasing greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost soils and methane hydrates, and the psychological loss of globally iconic species like the polar bear, among others.

Author:  This blog was written by Ethan Huntington on behalf of the Global Agenda Council on the Arctic

Image:The Canadian Coast Guard is seen during a joint Arctic exercise REUTERS/Chris Wattie

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