Arctic Ice Melt will Soon Open North Pole Shipping

businesses & nations rally to locate & divide new resources

As ice melts across the arctic north, and the Arctic Ocean opens up in summer months, the mythic Northwest Passage is expected to open to regular shipping, and Russia’s Northern Sea Route is expected to rival it in global trade traffic, within a generation. It is also expected the Arctic Ocean will be completely without ice in warm months by the end of the 21st century.

Even as ecologists warn of the collapse of polar ecosystems and the extinction threat to polar bears and other species, and indigenous peoples fear the degradation of their traditional hunting grounds, infrastructure and ways of life, businesses and governments are planning to claim their share of the open ocean.

The UN Treaty on the Law of the Sea allows nations with arctic coastlines to claim the sea floor, depending on the geographical structure and extent of the continental shelves extending out from their northern shores.

Norway, the world’s 3rd largest oil exporter (after Saudi Arabia and Russia), is planning to explore and develop the arctic seabed for petroleum and natural gas reserves. More than $7 billion is being spent to build the Snohvit gas field and pipeline system off the shores of its northernmost city, Hammerfest.

Nations like Norway that have high standards for environmental protection are also taking measures to ensure that new fuel extraction projects pose minimal environmental risk. But a severe threat to Scandinavian arctic ecosystems could lie in Russia’s far less environmentally sensitive extraction and shipping projects.

Murmansk is poised to become Russia’s principal northern seaport, and is likely to be the hub for expanded exploration, extraction and trade in Russian Arctic Ocean oil. There is concern that Russia’s fleet of tankers are not sufficiently maintained or upgraded and that many will continue to sail without the double hull required to protect against massive spills that can stem from running aground (as with the infamous Exxon-Valdez spill).

It may seem an odd state of affairs, that even as the world braces for the negative impact of global warming and arctic ice melt the world is also planning to exploit the open ocean that will be left as a result, but that is exactly what is happening. Indigenous peoples warn of grave threats to fragile ecosystems, even by the added human presence that new shipping lanes and fuel exploration will bring.

World climate is moderated and regulated by the frozen arctic. The melt of sea ice will be accompanied by glacial and Greenland ice melt, and scientists expect a rise of 1 meter in sea levels during this century. Entire nations, like the south Pacific island chain of Tuvalu, will disappear below the waves, as well as 60% of Bangladesh and most of low-lying southern Florida, if the rise in sea level is that severe.

While businesses and governments are gearing up for possibly heated and certainly complex efforts to divide up the commercial spoils of the Arctic Ocean, it will be vitally important to keep in mind that an open ocean may have adverse effects for the entire planet’s climate systems.

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Originally published January 5, 2006, at, then

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