Best of 2008 » Best of 2007 » Best of 2006 » Best of 2005 » Best of 2004 »

Originally published in Discover, August 30, 2007.


Arctic Land Grabs Could Cause Eco-Disaster

After nations carve up the fast-melting region, will there be anything left?

Global warming is making the Arctic a hot property. In early August a team of Russian geologists placed a flag in the seabed under the North Pole, claiming it was part of Russia’s underwater territory. Earlier this summer Canada’s prime minister announced plans to increase patrolling to protect Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, the fabled shipping route that snakes along Canada’s northern border. All this squabbling promises to intensify over the next few years as the Arctic Circle becomes ripe for exploitation.

For years, climate scientists have known the Arctic has been heating up much faster than the global average. In 2006 Arctic ice levels dipped below the record minimum, and researchers expect the next few years’ levels to be even lower. As the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean continues to melt, more and more ships will be able to pass through waterways like the Northwest Passage. Shipping companies may be drooling over the potential economic benefits, but increased shipping through the Arctic could have devastating environmental consequences, including habitat destruction, introduction of invasive species, and, perhaps worst of all, a high chance of oil and chemical spills that could be nearly impossible to clean up.

Mariners have been dreaming about using the Northwest Passage above Canada and the Northern Sea Route above Siberia for centuries. The two waterways represent a seductive shortcut between Europe and Asia. The current route from Europe involves looping all the way down to the Panama Canal and back up the U.S. West Coast. a distance of over 12,000 miles. The Northwest Passage route is about 4,000 miles shorter, which could save shipping companies millions of dollars.

But ever since European explorers began trying to find a viable route through the Northwest Passage in the 16th century (many have died while searching), it’s been impassibly frozen. More modern vessels can make it through, but it takes a specially constructed ship with a hardened body to push through the frozen waterway, and even then only when its path is cleared by icebreakers. The substantial extra expense deterred shipping companies from using the passage. But two years ago, the Russian vessel Akademik Fyodorov became the first boat to make it through the Northwest Passage without icebreakers. The window during the late summer when ships could get through used to be a short week or two, but it’s been increasing every year. It won’t be long before more ships without icebreakers start attempting the journey, say Arctic experts.

And ships won’t be entering the Arctic just for quick transits through the Northwest Passage. The number one draw to an ice-diminished Arctic is the cache of natural resources, such as oil and natural gas, that are thought to be buried under the Arctic Ocean. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic contains up to a quarter of the world’s undiscovered petroleum, although there is debate about how much is actually there. Once covered by thick sea ice, these treasures could soon become accessible, and Arctic nations like the U.S., Russia, and Denmark want the profits.

Environmental groups as well as many residents of northern Canada are not happy about the prospect of increased shipping in the Arctic. They worry that increasing shipping over the next few years is all too likely to cause an environmentally disastrous accident because the ice won’t be completely cleared for decades—it will have cleared just enough that inexperienced mariners will recklessly try to push through. “Freighters of all sorts will be coming through to save some cost on fuel,” says Joseph Handley, Premier of Canada’s Northwest Territories, which borders the Arctic Ocean. “They’ll come through and there will be accidents.”

If the worst case does come to pass and there’s a large oil or chemical spill in the high Arctic, the consequences could be particularly bad. The evaporation process is much slower in high latitudes because the water is so cold; breaking down pollutants like spilled oil could take many decades, says Peter Ewins, director of species conservation for World Wildlife Fund Canada. In addition, the region is so far removed from population and maritime centers that getting clean-up supplies to a spill site would be exceedingly difficult. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the U.S. Coast Guard was near enough that a clean-up effort could start immediately. “If you had to clean up a spill in the high Arctic, I don’t know how you’d do it,” says Handley.


The Arctic environment is known to be especially vulnerable to warming, and “increased shipping would present new challenges to an ecosystem that’s already experiencing significant change,” says Bruce Woods, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska office. The traffic could further hurt the many native species that are already struggling. For example, the

Dolphin–Union caribou, which live in the Canadian archipelago right in the middle of the Northwest Passage, rely on ice bridges to get into mainland Canada for food in the winter. Ships passing through have already cut up these bridges, says Ewins. This affects another sort of endangered species: the Inuit community who live in the northern islands and rely on the caribou for food. Passing ships have also interfered with the Inuit more directly; On more than one occasion, ships barging through the ice have left hunters stranded on newly severed icebergs, according to Handley, the Northwest Territories premier.

Increased ships in the Arctic could also exacerbate the problem of invasive species, foreign plant and animals species that enter and often take over ecosystems. Bacteria and small marine organisms, such as crabs and mussels, brought in on ships coming from warmer oceans could spread disease and compete with native species for resources. Invasive species are entering the region with or without shipping, says Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado; warming of the Arctic Ocean’s surface temperatures has increased mixing with foreign waters and all the microbes they contain. Increased shipping could accelerate the process still more, making the situation worse and the problems harder to repair.

Perhaps even more worrisome, there’s currently no plan in place to protect the Arctic from the environmental effects of increased shipping. Part of the problem is that no one can agree on which waters belong to whom. Eight countries—Russia, Canada, the U.S., Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark, through its territory, Greenland—have laid claim to Arctic territory and waters. Each nation is entitled to waters within 200 nautical miles of their continental shelves, according to the U.N.’s Law of the Sea, but over the years confusion has developed over what constitutes a continental shelf. When a team of Russian geologists claimed part of the North Pole’s seabed earlier this month, they argued the seabed is part of a large underwater mountain range that connects to Siberia. Should the U.N. accept their claim—perhaps a remote possibility, given that they’ve turned down similar claims from the Russian bear in the past—Russia would be entitled to thousands of miles of the Arctic Ocean and 45 percent of the area’s resources, according to some sources. Canadian politicians, meanwhile, say that other countries should be required to get Canadian permission before entering the Northwest Passage because much of the waters weave in and out of Canada’s northern islands. The U.S. and Europe have long ignored Canada’s professed sovereignty, claiming the fast-liquidating Northwest Passage is international and should be unrestricted.

With no clear resolution on who makes the rules, few rules have been adopted. There are some international organizations that are working on regulation programs in the region, like the U.N.’s Arctic Council, but there is still no plan for how to enforce these regulations. With countries focused on jockeying for political position, environmental concerns have been pushed to the background.

Supposedly, all the Arctic nations are committed to protecting the Arctic. Back in 1993, all eight countries signed the Nuuk Declaration, in which they promised to consider the environmental effects of all proposed activities in the region. Still, the economic incentive may be too great for countries to put the environment first in this case, and unlike Antarctica, which the UN deemed non-commercial, international territory, the Arctic might never attain protected status—its potential for profit is just too high. “There is a whole series of reasons why people want to venture into the Arctic more and more, so the number of ships will only keep increasing,” says the WWF’s Ewins.

Before long, the concept of an ice-free Arctic won’t be a possible future; it’ll be present-tense reality, and allied countries like the U.S. and Canada may find themselves fighting over territory that was quite recently considered a useless wasteland. “This may all be playing out within the next few years, rather than decades from now as had been thought,” says Scambos from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “Things are changing fast.”

Back to top