Arctic will become 'more of a Mediterranean than a frozen border'

| 19th October 2011
Arctic ice melt

(Image: Bjorn Alfthan/UNEP -

The Arctic could become ice-free during Summer months within 20 years (Image: Bjorn Alfthan/UNEP -

The Arctic was once out of reach to anyone but intrepid explorers. Today it's a natural resource battle ground. Arctic expert Charles Emmerson tells the Ecologist what's changed

Rosie Spinks: Can you talk a little bit about our fixation with the Arctic? What propels us to know the unknown?

Charles Emmerson: You talk about the unknown. But there’s another question here: unknown to whom? Indigenous populations have been in the Arctic much, much longer than the Arctic has been known to Europeans. Really up until the 19th century – and sometimes beyond – there have been two Arctics: the one indigenous people have known for thousands of years, known intimately on a local, liveable scale, and then the European view of the Arctic, as a vast, blank space on the map, as an unknown quantity, as a place of mystery, a place where we didn’t even know where the coastlines ran. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century there were opposing views on whether there was ice at the North Pole or, as some people thought, an open polar sea.

RS: When did climate change start affecting the Arctic?

CE: Human life and human habitation in the Arctic have always been somewhat marginal, so relatively small environmental changes have had potentially large changes in terms of population. This may be the explanation for human migrations through the Arctic over many thousands of years. More recently, one of the classic mysteries of Arctic history is the extent to which it was a relatively warm period which allowed for European settlement of Greenland, a thousand-odd years ago, and the extent to which a much colder period may have been responsible for killing off that population.

The fact that there are potentially plentiful oil, gas, and hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic tells you something about previous states of vegetation in the Arctic. But what you can infer from that about the nature of climate change today is limited. There is a difference of timescale – and timescales matter a lot for human societies.

Has the Arctic been relatively ice free at points in the past? Yes. But it doesn’t follow from that that the climate change currently being experienced in the Arctic – much faster than elsewhere in the world – is somehow just a natural variation, or nothing to worry about: warming in the Arctic is a fact, it is happening over a timescale which is already affecting people who live there, and continued warming will likely affect the lives of many, many, more beyond the Arctic. The Arctic is a key part of the global climate system. Change there may accelerate change elsewhere.

RS: What are the motives for humans developing the Arctic? How have they changed?

CE: There was, perhaps, an earlier era of exploration which was partly about these rather heroic, or sometimes tragic, characters who wanted to test themselves against the elements. That was certainly the popular – and powerful – imagery of the Arctic. But, even then, it was also about very much about national prestige, and calculations of potential benefits. The search for the Northwest Passage also involved very serious strategic considerations for a shorter trade route between Europe and Asia.

The idea of a quest for knowledge remains very much alive in the Arctic – particularly in Arctic science. In some ways, however, political and economic interests are a lot sharper than they were a hundred years ago. It isn’t just about climate change – it’s more about resources.

The economic resources of the Arctic have been known about for a long time. In the 1850s the search for whale oil decimated the Arctic whale population. In the 1870s and 1880s people were looking for graphite in northern Canada. Later, gold. At the beginning of the twentieth century: coal, and then oil. The notion of there being resources in the Arctic is deeply embedded. But the question has always been: Can those resources be extracted in way which is economically sustainable? That depends quite a lot on price, and on the commercial and technical ability to find and extract resources. What’s perhaps different now from the past is that we are in a world where extraction has become more technically possible and where economic factors tend to support it. When oil is at a $100 a barrel there are many more viable projects than at $20.

I think there is still a pioneering exploratory spirit in some respects. For scientists who work on the Arctic these are in some respects amazing times. Arctic science has begun to receive a lot more support: we’ve just come out of an International Polar Year. Arctic science is finally being recognised as being of major, global importance. And the idea of the Arctic a frontier to be explored and harnessed is certainly a significant part of some countries’ national development strategies for the Arctic. It’s still a powerful idea.

RS: Do you think this idea of civilisation and latitude being inseparable is changing at all?

CE: The idea of civilisation being linked to latitude made sense in agrarian societies where basic food productivity was the basis of development. In industrial societies, or with mechanised agriculture, latitude – or rather the particular climate associated with particular latitude – became a less important factor in economic development. Other things began to matter more: access to mineral resources, for example. Economic geography can change; and changes in the natural environment can be a major factor in driving that change.

One of the consequences of climate change now is that the environmental conditions associated with a particular line of latitude in a particular place are likely to change in the future. Some areas of the north may become more liveable. Areas of the south may become less liveable. But the consequences are likely to be complex. Infrastructure built on permafrost is at risk. Warmer weather may mean more storms and more coastal erosion. It’s not a simple case of everything moving north. 

But I think the map is changing in other ways. If you look at the map of the world you or I grew up with, it had the Arctic at the top, the Antarctic at the bottom, and both as depicted as barriers, edges. But of course as the Arctic opens up I think that that conception of the Arctic being a barrier through which you cannot pass is going to have to change. You’re going to have to start looking at polar-centred maps of the world, with the Arctic Ocean as what it may eventually become – more of a Mediterranean than a frozen border.

RS: Who is involved in the exploitation of the Arctic, and do you see any signs that the main players are trying to develop the Arctic in a responsible way?

CE: All the Arctic states are interested, to a greater or lesser degree, in economic development in the North. Hydrocarbon development is already a fact in parts of Alaska, Norway and Russia. You’ve got mines in northern Canada. Offshore, development is most likely off the coast of Norway and Russia.

In some respects the Arctic is becoming more like the rest of the world, politically and economically. Our imagined Arctic is a beautiful and wonderful thing – but it corresponds less and less to the reality of what’s actually happening.

Exploitation of resources, wherever it happens, always entails risk. I think that, for me, the question now is not whether development will happen in the Arctic – it already is – but how quickly, and how we can ensure that it happens with the greatest degree of environmental protection. For me the point is to make sure that countries and companies are held to the highest possible standards if they do push ahead with resource exploitation.

Governments are key in all this: they set the frameworks. Some countries have relatively good regulation: Norway, for example. That’s the gold standard. In other countries, such as the US, regulatory frameworks haven’t worked well. The environmental benchmarks and knowledge isn’t always there. And then there are big question marks over Russia.  

I think that some companies – certainly not all – do realise that there is substantial reputational risk involved in Arctic development: they need to get this right. That’s a good thing. If a company screws up in the Arctic there may be massive financial liability, they may find it hard to get projects elsewhere, they may be exposed to negative shareholder or consumer sentiment. Companies should only get involved in the Arctic if they can show they are responsible, and capable.

Does that mean there are no problems? No. There are lots of problems. There are far too many unanswered questions. There are far too many gaps in our knowledge. But I do think we’re heading in the right direction in terms of governments and businesses recognising their broader responsibilities. But holding them to those responsibilities is going to be a continuing challenge.

Charles Emmerson is a senior research fellow at Chatham House and author of The Future History of the Arctic

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