Arctic Meltdown: The Economic and Security Implications of Global Warming
While the other Arctic powers are racing to carve up the region, the United States has remained largely on the sidelines. The U.S. Senate has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the leading international treaty on maritime rights, even though President George W. Bush, environmental nongovernmental organizations, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard service chiefs, and leading voices in the private sector support the convention. As a result, the United States cannot formally assert any rights to the untold resources off Alaska's northern coast beyond its exclusive economic zone -- such zones extend for only 200 nautical miles from each Arctic state's shore -- nor can it join the UN commission that adjudicates such claims. Worse, Washington has forfeited its ability to assert sovereignty in the Arctic by allowing its icebreaker fleet to atrophy. The United States today funds a navy as large as the next 17 in the world combined, yet it has just one seaworthy oceangoing icebreaker -- a vessel that was built more than a decade ago and that is not optimally configured for Arctic missions. Russia, by comparison, has a fleet of 18 icebreakers. And even China operates one icebreaker, despite its lack of Arctic waters. Through its own neglect, the world's sole superpower -- a country that borders the Bering Strait and possesses over 1,000 miles of Arctic coastline -- has been left out in the cold.
The Arctic has always experienced cooling and warming, but the current melt defies any historical comparison. It is dramatic, abrupt, and directly correlated with industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. In Alaska and western Canada, average winter temperatures have increased by as much as seven degrees Fahrenheit in the past 60 years. The results of global warming in the Arctic are far more dramatic than elsewhere due to the sharper angle at which the sun's rays strike the polar region during summer and because the retreating sea ice is turning into open water, which absorbs far more solar radiation. This dynamic is creating a vicious melting cycle known as the ice-albedo feedback loop.
Each new summer breaks the previous year's record. Between 2004 and 2005, the Arctic lost 14 percent of its perennial ice -- the dense, thick ice that is the main obstacle to shipping. In the last 23 years, 41 percent of this hard, multiyear ice has vanished. The decomposition of this ice means that the Arctic will become like the Baltic Sea, covered by only a thin layer of seasonal ice in the winter and therefore fully navigable year-round. A few years ago, leading supercomputer climate models predicted that there would be an ice-free Arctic during the summer by the end of the century. But given the current pace of retreat, trans-Arctic voyages could conceivably be possible within the next five to ten years. The most advanced models presented at the 2007 meeting of the American Geophysical Union anticipated an ice-free Arctic in the summer as early as 2013.
The largest deposits are found in the Arctic off the coast of Russia. The Russian state-controlled oil company Gazprom has approximately 113 trillion cubic feet of gas already under development in the fields it owns in the Barents Sea. The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources calculates that the territory claimed by Moscow could contain as much as 586 billion barrels of oil -- although these deposits are unproven. By comparison, all of Saudi Arabia's current proven oil reserves -- which admittedly exclude unexplored and speculative resources -- amount to only 260 billion barrels. The U.S. Geological Survey is just now launching the first comprehensive study of the Arctic's resources. The first areas to be studied are the 193,000-square-mile East Greenland Rift Basins. According to initial seismic readings, they could contain 9 billion barrels of oil and 86 trillion cubic feet of gas. Altogether, the Alaskan Arctic coast appears to hold at least 27 billion barrels of oil.
The shipping shortcuts of the Northern Sea Route (over Eurasia) and the Northwest Passage (over North America) would cut existing oceanic transit times by days, saving shipping companies -- not to mention navies and smugglers -- thousands of miles in travel. The Northern Sea Route would reduce the sailing distance between Rotterdam and Yokohama from 11,200 nautical miles -- via the current route, through the Suez Canal -- to only 6,500 nautical miles, a savings of more than 40 percent. Likewise, the Northwest Passage would trim a voyage from Seattle to Rotterdam by 2,000 nautical miles, making it nearly 25 percent shorter than the current route, via the Panama Canal. Taking into account canal fees, fuel costs, and other variables that determine freight rates, these shortcuts could cut the cost of a single voyage by a large container ship by as much as 20 percent -- from approximately $17.5 million to $14 million -- saving the shipping industry billions of dollars a year. The savings would be even greater for the megaships that are unable to fit through the Panama and Suez Canals and so currently sail around the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. Moreover, these Arctic routes would also allow commercial and military vessels to avoid sailing through politically unstable Middle Eastern waters and the pirate-infested South China Sea. An Iranian provocation in the Strait of Hormuz, such as the one that occurred in January, would be considered far less of a threat in an age of trans-Arctic shipping.
Arctic shipping could also dramatically affect global trade patterns. In 1969, oil companies sent the S.S. Manhattan through the Northwest Passage to test whether it was a viable route for moving Arctic oil to the Eastern Seaboard. The Manhattan completed the voyage with the help of accompanying icebreakers, but oil companies soon deemed the route impractical and prohibitively expensive and opted instead for an Alaskan pipeline. But today such voyages are fast becoming economically feasible. As soon as marine insurers recalculate the risks involved in these voyages, trans-Arctic shipping will become commercially viable and begin on a large scale. In an age of just-in-time delivery, and with increasing fuel costs eating into the profits of shipping companies, reducing long-haul sailing distances by as much as 40 percent could usher in a new phase of globalization. Arctic routes would force further competition between the Panama and Suez Canals, thereby reducing current canal tolls; shipping chokepoints such as the Strait of Malacca would no longer dictate global shipping patterns; and Arctic seaways would allow for greater international economic integration. When the ice recedes enough, likely within this decade, a marine highway directly over the North Pole will materialize. Such a route, which would most likely run between Iceland and Alaska's Dutch Harbor, would connect shipping megaports in the North Atlantic with those in the North Pacific and radiate outward to other ports in a hub-and-spoke system. A fast lane is now under development between the Arctic port of Murmansk, in Russia, and the Hudson Bay port of Churchill, in Canada, which is connected to the North American rail network.
Despite the melting icecap's potential to transform global shipping and energy markets, Arctic issues are largely ignored at senior levels in the U.S. State Department and the U.S. National Security Council. The most recent executive statement on the Arctic dates to 1994 and does not mention the retreating ice. But the Arctic's strategic location and immense resource wealth make it an important national interest. Although the melting Arctic holds great promise, it also poses grave dangers. The combination of new shipping routes, trillions of dollars in possible oil and gas resources, and a poorly defined picture of state ownership makes for a toxic brew.
The situation is especially dangerous because there are currently no overarching political or legal structures that can provide for the orderly development of the region or mediate political disagreements over Arctic resources or sea-lanes. The Arctic has always been frozen; as ice turns to water, it is not clear which rules should apply. The rapid melt is also rekindling numerous interstate rivalries and attracting energy-hungry newcomers, such as China, to the region. The Arctic powers are fast approaching diplomatic gridlock, and that could eventually lead to the sort of armed brinkmanship that plagues other territories, such as the desolate but resource-rich Spratly Islands, where multiple states claim sovereignty but no clear picture of ownership exists.
There are also a handful of unresolved issues at play in the Arctic that are not covered under UNCLOS. Between 1958 and 1992, Russia dumped 18 nuclear reactors into the Arctic Ocean, several of them still fully loaded with nuclear fuel. This hazard still needs to be cleaned up. Furthermore, the Arctic region is home to one million indigenous people, who deserve to have a say in the region's future, especially as regards their professed right to continue hunting bowhead whales, their safety alongside what will become bustling shipping lanes, and their rightful share of the economic benefits that Arctic development will bring. With the prospect of newfound energy wealth, there is also growing talk of Greenland petitioning Denmark for political independence. Finally, there has been an explosion in polar tourism, often involving ships unsuited for navigation in the region. Last year, 140 cruise ships carried 4,000 intrepid travelers for holidays off Greenland's icy coast, a dangerous journey in largely uncharted waters.
Until such a solution is found, the Arctic countries are likely to unilaterally grab as much territory as possible and exert sovereign control over opening sea-lanes wherever they can. In this legal no man's land, Arctic states are pursuing their narrowly defined national interests by laying down sonar nets and arming icebreakers to guard their claims. Russia has led the charge with its flag-planting antics this past summer. Moscow has been arguing that a submarine elevation called the Lomonosov Ridge is a natural extension of the Eurasian landmass and that therefore approximately half of the Arctic Ocean is its rightful inheritance. The UN commission that is reviewing the claim sent Russia back to gather additional geological proof, leading Artur Chilingarov, a celebrated Soviet-era explorer and now a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, to declare, "The Arctic is ours and we should manifest our presence" while leading a mission to the North Pole last summer.
In 1847, a British expedition seeking the fabled Northwest Passage ended in death and ignominy because Sir John Franklin and his crew, seeing themselves as products of the pinnacle of Victorian civilization, were too proud to ask the Inuit for help. At the height of its empire, the United States sometimes sees itself as invincible, too. But the time has come for Washington to get over its isolationist instincts and ratify UNCLOS, cooperate with Canada on managing the Northwest Passage, and propose an imaginative new multilateral Arctic treaty.
Washington must awaken to the broader economic and security implications of climate change. The melting Arctic is the proverbial canary in the coal mine of planetary health and a harbinger of how the warming planet will profoundly affect U.S. national security. Being green is no longer a slogan just for Greenpeace supporters and campus activists; foreign policy hawks must also view the environment as part of the national security calculus. Self-preservation in the face of massive climatic change requires an enlightened, humble, and strategic response. Both liberals and conservatives in the United States must move beyond the tired debate over causation and get on with the important work of mitigation and adaptation by managing the consequences of the great melt.