The Arctic is a desert.
In 2007 I moved to China because it was obvious the world was pivoting to Asia. It is just as clear now that the need for natural resources and cheaper trade routes is shifting the gaze of developed and developing nations to the north. The Arctic will be one of the most geopolitically significant regions of the next 50 years. On a personal level, I wanted to see the Arctic region before it changes into whatever is next in its evolution. Climate change, resource extraction and development will drive an increase in population that will have repercussions for the people and the place, thereby altering one of the last frontiers on the planet.
What I have found is a significant lack of understanding of the geopolitical, environmental and spatial constraints inherent in living, let alone exploiting, the Arctic for the majority of governments, corporations and individuals wanting to do so.
I spent the past few months in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Yellowknife is actually subarctic (depending on who draws the line), approximately 250 miles from the Arctic Circle. However, it is close enough to give me a window into the potential changes into the core Arctic region and what would need to occur for the region to develop. Yellowknife is currently a central hub for development, government and the Canadian military for the Northwest Territories, and therefore the Arctic. Diamonds are currently the most significant extractive resource, although many other resources including fish, rare earth minerals and potential oil and gas reserves in the surrounding territory. Its weather is not as consistently extreme as Cambridge Bay, for example, but it was -40C more than a few days this winter. In Yellowknife, I feel as though I am in an environment I have never been before – the Arctic.
Geography and Politics
The Arctic, with a population of about 4 million people, lies between 66.5 degrees N and the North Pole. The region is made up mostly of the Arctic Ocean, which is frozen up to 9 meters in depth for much of the year. By definition, this region is flat and at sea level. The Arctic Cordillera is located in the far north near Greenland, stretching (although unconnected) from Nunavut into northeastern Quebec. The Cordillera is as desolate as it is awe-inspiring. The Arctic Ocean connects to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and therefore can sometimes be traveled via seasonal waterways in the summer. The passages are called the Northwest Passage, between Canada and the United States, and the Northern Sea Route, between Russia and Norway.
It is important to note that the passages through the Arctic may never be open year round, and in fact, unless the water is completely ice free it will continue to be very dangerous to navigate. Environmental models show the Arctic Ocean will eventually be completely free of summer ice in the near future (before 2100 seems to be a general consensus) but this isn’t certain. Vessels with ice-breaking capabilities, which are expensive at small scales, will be necessary until then- least a container ship, or oil tanker, becomes the next Titanic. So although the passages could become important trade routes in the future, they are only truly viable if the region continues to warm significantly – possibly to the point where the environmental catastrophes elsewhere are, well, catastrophic.
Russia, United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark all have territorial claims to the Arctic. The Arctic Council, which started as an environmental protection group but is now evolving into something else (although nobody seems to know exactly what), is made up of eight permanent members including these above countries plus Sweden, Finland and Iceland. These countries are able to vote on issues involving the Arctic (Indigenous groups can’t vote but are permanent participants) , including environmental issues, search and rescue and oil spill prevention. The United Kingdom, France and Germany have “permanent observer” status. China, South Korea, India, Singapore and the European Union are looking to achieve “permanent observer” status in order to have a greater influence on the Arctic – although again it is not clear how because they cannot vote. The sheer number and strength of the countries currently wanting to involve themselves in a group with no clear mandate, in a region with little current importance to world affairs, underlines the Arctic’s growing importance. Just as the fate of the Middle East must suffer the meddling of many powerful nations because of oil, the Arctic will most likely suffer the same fate as resources become more rare and as the “old” ice continues to melt at its current rate.
The Arctic region is thought to hold over 20% of the remaining hydrocarbon reserves on the planet. This does not include potentially massive quantities of methane hydrate, which are released as the permafrost melts. Methane could be a major source of natural gas in the future as technology improves, and so would increase the amount and importance of the hydrocarbon reserves. Although most of the oil and gas is considered difficult to very difficult to extract, countries are building their influence and infrastructure in the region now because, in the future, most hydrocarbons reserves around the world will be difficult to exploit.
Iron and rare earth minerals are also thought to be in abundance in the Arctic, along with fish, fragile fresh water, diamonds, and other valuable resources yet to be discovered beneath the permafrost and floating icepack of the Arctic Ocean.
Although many prospectors believe the current warming trend will be a boon to resource extraction and other forms of development, I am not as optimistic.
Yellowknife, which is subarctic, has significant problems with development because of the harsh winters and distance from the rest of civilization. If the planet continues to warm and the core arctic temperatures become more in line with Yellowknife, it will still be a very harsh environment. In the summer, the Great Slave Lake, a massive body of water at 10,502 square miles, is completely open. Yet open water only lasts 2 to 3 months, and the winters are still extremely harsh – almost unexplainably so for those who have not experienced it. If the Arctic eventually has temperatures equal to Calgary or Edmonton, it will occur in the context of a much warmer, unstable planet.
The extreme cold affects everything. It makes steel brittle, water and gas pipes buried in the permafrost extremely difficult to fix, machines and technology seize up on a daily basis and the cold literally twists buildings and houses into different shapes. Before I arrived here, I could not conceptualize permafrost. Then, a neighbor’s water main burst. A work crew erected a tent above our street in front of the neighbor’s house and used massive heaters, blowing day and night for weeks, just to thaw the ground enough to fix the small leak. The entire time, the neighbor was without water and the expense of the project was massive. These types of problems happen all day, every day, throughout the winter. I have seen a car axle break in half, new car batteries frozen solid and machines of all types grind to a halt without massive energy expenditures to keep them warm. Engineers from the south do not comprehend the limitations, and so they constantly struggle with conditions for which they have no understanding or training. The more complex the machine, the more likely it is to fail. It is as if an engineer has to accept they are in an alien territory, like the moon, where very little they learned about how things work is applicable. This is a very difficult concept to grasp for those who do not experience it everyday. Trying to explain the Arctic winter to someone in Houston, Texas is like trying to explain the Chinese mentality to someone in, well, Houston, Texas. Houstonians aren’t stupid, they just have no ability to conceptualize the immutables that come with living on an alien planet.
When a machine or piece of technology does fail, and it will, the difficulty and expense of getting anything to the north is oftentimes prohibitive because of the sheer distances involved and lack of transportation infrastructure. All goods, and quite a few services, must be flown in – usually on planes with very small cargo space relative to even one container on a cargo ship. Again, we are talking about Yellowknife. The difficulty in getting items to the Arctic is exponential. There are no roads in the Arctic because they are very expensive to build and maintain. When major building projects are taken on, most of the equipment and supplies must be put on a barge and shipped there. If the supplies do not make the barge, the project must be put on hold until the next year when the ice opens up again. Once the supplies are in an Arctic port, they must be transferred by plane to the building site.
Consider the cost in time and treasure a mining operation incurs when building a runway in order to bring in supplies. Every 1000 feet of runway equals additional construction and maintenance costs. However, the added length also determines the size of the airplane that can land there – and the amount of supplies that can be brought in on a flight. At first, the supplies arrive in small increments until the runway is long enough to support larger aircraft. Without a runway, a company does not have an operation. Once the runway is built, the operation can then begin to bring in supplies to start building a mining site – and eventually run a mine. However, during the ice break up in early summer (when the ice becomes open water) the mine will be completely cut off from receiving any supplies or equipment until the lake or ocean is free of ice. If something goes wrong, operations could be forced to suspend for months while waiting on the necessary equipment.
Although climate change is currently causing a severe reduction in the size and depth of the arctic icepack and permafrost, there is no guarantee the change will be uniform or result in warming over the next 50 to 100 years. In fact, even if everyday problems with the harsh environment could be solved through warming, technology – or a combination of both – it is the dramatic and deadly extreme weather events that keep most who live and work in the Arctic awake at night. Blizzards and whiteout conditions not only destroy equipment, but they also create life-threatening conditions for anyone caught out in them. For any work crews working at mining sites or building transportation or other infrastructure, one major weather event could grind the entire project to a halt, sometimes forever.
Eventually, the natural resources in the Arctic could be necessary to keep the world’s economy ticking, and then we will see the real game begin. Governments and Corporations will attempt to adapt to the prohibitive cost currently keeping large-scale development at bay in the Arctic as it becomes more necessary, and cost effective, to do so. It is important to remember that when the Arctic becomes vitally important for its resources, we will have truly gone to the edge of the world to find what we need to keep our economies running. After the Arctic, there is nowhere else to go.
For now, the problems facing corporations wanting to exploit the available natural resources are enough to keep most of the big players from making major investments; those that have, such as oil company Dutch Shell, have been smacked by the very concerns listed above – forcing them to rethink their position in the Arctic.
The impediments to development also currently keep nations from direct confrontation on who will control and benefit from the resources beneath the ice. They are certainly angling for a piece of the action, but there is no need to push too hard – as long as they can at minimum assure a place at the table before the cards are dealt.
Regardless, the Arctic has become a space on the grand chessboard, and that alone is significant. It is one more place that must be considered when looking at the actions of nations as they vie for power and control of the remaining resources on the planet. Understanding what is important not just today, but tomorrow, will help to translate the behavior of enemies and friends alike – possibly allowing for clear communication before it is too late. This is the power of understanding geopolitics and its constraints.