The New Arctic Bonanza

In Reviews

There is a natural constituency for the notion that the Arctic will soon be the world’s next great battleground, for anyone can tell you that it has two things in superabundance: climate change and Russians. Defense hawks will remember the cold war. Climate hawks, who rightly believe that warming will increase the risk of global conflicts, reason that the first flare-up may be where temperatures are spiking the fastest: in the Arctic, which is heating up at twice the rate of the rest of the planet.

After years of study, we have a general sense of what the Arctic Ocean will do in coming decades: it will dramatically melt. Its summers will become largely ice-free (even as its winters remain frigid); its walrus and polar bear populations will collapse; its oil will be easier to reach; and its Inuit will have to abandon their traditional world or be abandoned by it. After years of study, however, we still have no idea what Russia will do. In the summer of 2007, when the Arctic ice cap shrank to its smallest extent in recorded history, revealing an Alaska-size expanse of open ocean, Russia sent a nuclear-powered icebreaker to the North Pole, where the deputy speaker of its parliament climbed into a submersible, descended 14,100 feet to the seafloor, and planted a titanium Russian flag. There was a frenzy of media coverage, and the specter of Arctic conflict was forever lodged in the public mind. We shouldn’t need an excuse to worry about the breakdown of the Arctic environment, but if we’re looking for one, some might argue that this is it.

Cold Front: Conflict Ahead in Arctic Waters

In his densely reported new book, Cold Front, the British defense correspondent David Fairhall, who covered the last ecological disaster approaching this scale — Chernobyl — for the Guardian, does not fall into this trap. “The North Pole [is not] going to be the setting for a new kind of Cold War,” he writes, “much as it might make for an easy headline.” He dashes other conventional wisdom — that the Arctic will soon become a navigable, ice-free ocean like any other, that polar shipping routes will soon put the Panama and Suez canals out of business — with similar certainty. “Dark, cold winter conditions will return each year,” he reminds us. “The disappearance of summer ice will not prompt a maritime revolution…so much as a process of piecemeal evolutionary change.”

Journalists burdened by reality are inevitably stuck with the fact that reality is not as sexy as disasterism, and I can name at least one writer — myself — who has been guilty of highlighting some bellicose moments in recent Arctic history. Five years ago, when I witnessed friendly Canadians firing live ammunition into the Northwest Passage and running mock drills aimed at pacifying American merchant vessels, I briefly believed that global warming was making anything possible. Up was down, ice was water, and even Canada and Denmark were picking fights. But the Arctic has one more thing in great abundance — petroleum — and this is having an oddly stabilizing effect on polar politics even as it begins to wreak havoc on the polar environment.

The region has nearly a quarter of the planet’s untapped oil and gas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In a zero-sum, winner-takes-all, scorched-earth world, that could be a prize worth fighting over. But it is worth remembering that the Arctic Ocean is bounded by just five countries, all of them stable and relatively wealthy, four of them part of NATO: the United States (via Alaska), Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, and Russia. So five countries have an opportunity to lay claim to what might otherwise belong to all of humankind. Economic game theory has an explanation for why these Arctic powers have been cooperating in recent years, but so do toddlers’ birthday parties: so long as you’re guaranteed a big piece of the cake, you’re unlikely to throw a tantrum because you’re not getting all of it.

Were the United States truly worried about Arctic warfare, we would have more than one functioning polar icebreaker. Were Canada truly worried about the territorial designs of its two Arctic neighbors, the United States and Denmark, it would not have invited both to play along in recent years’ military exercises in the high north. Were Norway truly worried about the Russians next door, it would not have wanted its largest petroleum company, Statoil, to partner with them in the Barents Sea to develop Shtokman, the Arctic’s largest natural gas project. And were Russia worried — well, who knows. But it will likely be not warships but an international legal agreement, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, that decides who controls what in the Arctic.

As Fairhall explains, in 2001 Russia became the very first country to try to play by the treaty’s new rules on territorial claims, submitting one — later sent back for more geological data — for what it considered its rightful undersea territory. Canada, Denmark, and Norway are in the process of doing the same. (The treaty-shy United States, meanwhile, is one of the few countries in the world that has yet to ratify the Law of the Sea.) Russia’s economic future is planned around oil, gas, and minerals. “Finding, extracting and selling them at a profit is a lengthy process,” he writes. “It can only be achieved from a reasonably stable platform of international technical, legal and financial cooperation — international oil companies want to know where they are going to pay their taxes. The Kremlin surely knows this.”

In hindsight, Russia’s flag-planting was as much about domestic politics as geopolitics, an election-year stunt by one of Vladimir Putin’s closest confidants. The same goes for Canada, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves flags in the Arctic and talks tough about U.S. incursions in part because it gives him political cover to cut cross-border deals with politicians such as George W. Bush, with whom he had much in common, and Barack Obama, with whom he hopes soon to have an agreement to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Were it not for its friendship with America, Canada would not have so many planned pipelines and hydropower plants: U.S. consumption drives Canada’s energy market. It was Canada’s foreign minister at the time, Peter MacKay, who provided the most colorful response to Russia’s visit to the North Pole. “This isn’t the 15th century,” he said. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.'” And he was right; the five Arctic powers have settled on more gentlemanly means.

In late summer 2008, the Northwest Passage, atop North America, and the Northeast Passage (or Northern Sea Route), atop Russia, were simultaneously open for the first time in recorded history. But the future of these two fabled shipping routes is unclear from Fairhall’s reporting, which studiously avoids predicting what is in fact unpredictable. He is himself a maritime buff, and it shows: Cold Front spends long pages describing the travails of men who sought the Northwest Passage — Ross, Parry, Sabine, Franklin, Bylot, Hudson, Baffin — and longer pages on the bureaucratic history of the Northeast Passage, which Russia saw as a potential source of foreign income even in Soviet days. One learns about submarines, aircraft carriers, the fundamentals of icebreaking, and especially the economics of container shipping: using the Arctic instead of the Suez Canal to get to Yokohama, Japan, from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, a hypothetical ship could save 4,000 miles, eight days, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuel costs — provided its owner can live with the many uncertainties introduced by the ice, which today most still cannot. If the Arctic continues to develop peacefully, Fairhall notes, it will have at least one practical advantage over the Suez Canal: no pirates.

For the militarily minded, Cold Front should be comforting. The Arctic is unlikely to be a major theater, so they can focus their attentions on the many other regions — from the Nile Basin to South Asia to sub-Saharan Africa — where climate change may have serious security impacts. But for the environmentally minded, the book should not be comforting. Read between the lines and this thorough history of the Arctic takes shape as a history of political pragmatism: even as rivalries flare, very little gets in the way of economic development.

Scarcely discussed in Cold Front are the rash of new exploration deals between oil multinationals and the northern powers, from Exxon’s multibillion-dollar foray into the Russian Arctic Ocean to Cairn Energy’s test wells off the west coast of Greenland to Shell’s twin offshore projects in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas of Alaska, which appear close to clearing their final regulatory hurdles. The Arctic’s natural feedback loops, which contribute to the region’s accelerated pace of climate change, are well known: open water absorbs more heat than does bright, white ice. The more water there is, the more quickly the ice melts, and the more quickly the ice melts, the more open water is exposed. On land, permafrost stores untold quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. As the permafrost melts, the methane goes into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere heats up, melting the permafrost. Fairhall does not ruminate on the obvious, if crucial, irony of Arctic oil and gas: insofar as drilling begets warming and warming begets melting and melting begets more drilling, this represents yet another feedback loop — perhaps the only one we humans have the power to stop.

First published in OnEarth Magazine.


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McKenzie Funk
National Magazine Award finalist McKenzie Funk is a founding member of Deca and the author of Windfall, named a book of the year by The New Yorker, Mother Jones, Salon, and Amazon and the winner of a 2015 PEN Literary Award. Mac's writing appears in Harper's, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Outside, and The New York Times Magazine. An Open Society Fellow, he speaks five languages and is a native of the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his wife and sons.