Nature and Biodiversity

The final frontier: how Arctic ice melting is opening up trade opportunities

Jökulsárlón, Iceland iceberg melt global warming climate change transport

With financial gains to be exploited, will the world have enough restraint to resist damaging this landscape? Image: Unsplash/Valeriia Bugaiova

Nicolas LePan
Mining Editor, Visual Capitalist
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Arctic

  • As Arctic ice melts, sea routes will stay navigable for longer periods, which could drastically change international trade and shipping.
  • This chart shows the location of major oil and gas fields in the Arctic and the possible new trade routes through this frontier.

The Arctic is changing. As retreating ice cover makes this region more accessible, nations with Arctic real estate are thinking of developing these subzero landscapes and the resources below.

ice melt global warming climate change heat rising sea transport oil
What does a changing Arctic mean for the world?

As the Arctic evolves, a vast amount of resources will become more accessible and longer shipping seasons will improve Arctic logistics. But with a changing climate and increased public pressure to limit resource development in environmentally sensitive regions, the future of northern economic activity is far from certain.

This week’s Chart of the Week shows the location of major oil and gas fields in the Arctic and the possible new trade routes through this frontier.

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A final frontier for undiscovered resources?

Underneath the Arctic Circle lies massive oil and natural gas formations. The United States Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic contains approximately 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil resources and about 30% of its undiscovered natural gas resources.

So far, most exploration in the Arctic has occurred on land. This work produced the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field in Alaska, the Tazovskoye Field in Russia, and hundreds of smaller fields, many of which are on Alaska’s North Slope, an area now under environmental protection.

Land accounts for about 1/3 of the Arctic’s area and is thought to hold about 16% of the Arctic’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas resources. A further 1/3 of the Arctic area is comprised of offshore continental shelves, which are thought to contain enormous amounts of resources but remain largely unexplored by geologists.

The remaining 1/3 of the Arctic is deep ocean waters measuring thousands of feet in depth.

The Arctic circle is about the same geographic size as the African continent─about 6% of Earth’s surface area─yet it holds an estimated 22% of Earth’s oil and natural gas resources. This paints a target on the Arctic for exploration and development, especially with shorter seasons of ice coverage improving ocean access.

Thawing ice cover: improved ocean access, new trading routes

As Arctic ice melts, sea routes will stay navigable for longer periods, which could drastically change international trade and shipping. September ice coverage has decreased by more than 25% since 1979, although the area within the Arctic Circle is still almost entirely covered with ice from November to July.

Typically shipping to Japan from Rotterdam would use the Suez Canal and take about 30 days, whereas a route from New York would use the Panama Canal and take about 25 days.

But if the Europe-Asia trip used the Northern Sea Route along the northern coast of Russia, the trip would last 18 days and the distance would shrink from ~11,500 nautical miles to ~6,900 nautical miles. For the U.S.-Asia trip through the Northwest Passage, it would take 21 days, rather than 25.

Control of these routes could bring significant advantages to countries and corporations looking for a competitive edge.

Competing interests: Arctic neighbors

Eight countries lay claim to land that lies within the Arctic Circle: Canada, Denmark (through its administration of Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.

There is no consistent agreement among these nations regarding the claims to oil and gas beneath the Arctic Ocean seafloor. However, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides each country an exclusive economic zone extending 200 miles out from its shoreline and up to 350 miles, under certain geological conditions.

Uncertain geology and politics has led to overlapping territorial disputes over how each nation defines and maps its claims based on the edge of continental margins. For example, Russia claims that their continental margin follows the Lomonosov Ridge all the way to the North Pole. In another, both the U.S. and Canada claim a portion of the Beaufort Sea, which is thought to contain significant oil and natural gas resources.

To develop or not to develop

Just because the resources are there does not mean humans have to exploit them, especially given oil’s environmental impacts. Canada’s federal government has already returned security deposits that oil majors had paid to drill in Canadian Arctic waters, which are currently off limits until at least 2021.

In total, the Government of Canada returned US$327 million worth of security deposits, or 25% of the money oil companies pledged to spend on exploration in the Beaufort Sea. In addition, Goldman Sachs announced that it would not finance any projects in the U.S.’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The retreat of Western economic interests in the Arctic may leave the region to Russia and China, countries with less strict environmental regulations.

Russia has launched an ambitious plan to remilitarize the Arctic. Specifically, Russia is searching for evidence to prove its territorial claims to additional portions of the Arctic, so that it can move its Arctic borderline — which currently measures over 14,000 miles in length — further north.

In a changing Arctic, this potentially resource-rich region could become another venue for geopolitical tensions, again testing whether humans can be proper stewards of the natural world.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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