On Thin Ice

article image
AP Photo / Jonathan Hayward, CP

When American explorer Robert Peary reached the North Pole in 1909, he wired President William Howard Taft to let him know that he’d claimed the territory for the United States. Taft’s response? “Thanks for your interesting and generous offer. I do not know exactly what I could do with it.”

Taft’s indifference reflected the prevailing sentiment of the day: Why would anyone want an inhospitable, frozen wasteland?

The Cold War changed this line of thinking. Suddenly, the Arctic became a choice piece of real estate. It was the perfect surveillance point for listening in on enemies and the quickest bombing route between the Soviet Union and North America.

The Cold War may be long over, but nations are still salivating over the Arctic–just for very different reasons. Geologists estimate that nearly 20 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas may be lingering beneath the Arctic’s frigid waters. Indeed, the Arctic could contain more than 90 billion barrels of oil, which is enough to supply the world’s demand for three years. And the U.S. Geological Survey believes that the region also holds about one-third of the world’s untapped natural gas reserves.

Until recently, extracting those resources seemed like a long shot. As the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrated, getting black gold out of the ocean’s floor is no simple task, and the potential for environmental damage is real. While Arctic oil drillers don’t have to contend with the Gulf’s hurricane season, cutting through the ice is difficult and expensive, and the massive icebergs threaten to topple offshore rigs.

But as the ice melts, these hurdles are disappearing. The crowning irony is that by burning fossil fuels, we’ve helped to melt the Arctic, giving us access to more fossil fuels.

By United Nations conventions, the countries with coastlines in the region–the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark (thanks to the ownership of Greenland)–all have control of an economic zone that extends 200 nautical miles beyond their shores. Also, Arctic nations can expand their territorial claims to include 350 miles of the seabed on the continental shelf. If you can’t visualize exactly what that means, don’t worry; neither can anyone else. Figuring out where the seabed begins and ends is a maddening task, and there’s a good deal of ambiguity about what defines a country’s continental shelf.

The issue of ownership in the Arctic is further complicated by the fact that the United States has failed to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which attempts to clarify a number of these issues.

Nobody will be dancing in the streets when ocean levels start to rise and thawed methane gas is being released into the atmosphere. However, the reality is that if the Arctic as we know it disappears, one economy will benefit more than any other–Greenland’s.

At first blush, Arctic thawing seems like bad news for an island where 80 percent of the surface is covered in ice. But from a political and financial standpoint, the warmer temperatures may just be what Greenland’s 57,000 residents need.

Although Greenland has enjoyed self-governance since 1979, it’s still a part of Denmark. In fact, Denmark props up Greenland’s economy with an annual grant of about $650 million, a subsidy that represents about a third of the island’s GDP. Without that cash, Greenland couldn’t support itself. Its exports, mainly shrimp and fish, simply don’t cover its expenses.

One new stream of revenue, oddly enough, may come from global warming. Greenland’s residents hope that as the ice thaws, they’ll be able to drill down to previously inaccessible deposits on the northern tip of the island as well as offshore, where about 50 billion barrels of oil are buried.

The United States would definitely enjoy tapping into oil and gas reserves in the Arctic, but it doesn’t need to in order to remain economically viable. The Russian economy is another story. Because Russia is the world’s second-largest exporter of oil, its economy depends on exploiting its natural resources. Gaining access to a huge new pool of resources in the Arctic could give Russia a lot of wiggle room as it tries to modernize its economy.

The United States also stands to gain from the Arctic thaw. About 10.4 billion barrels of oil sit under Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to Alaska’s offshore reserves. A 2008 study from the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that Alaska has nearly 30 billion barrels of undiscovered oil resources–roughly four years’ worth of American demand–under its surface and coastal waters.

In a global sense, of course, nobody really benefits from defrosting the Arctic. A 2010 study by the Pew Environment Group pegged the global cost of the melting Arctic ice at more than $2.4 trillion over the next four decades. This estimate takes into account the Arctic’s function as Earth’s air conditioner. Once our AC unit melts, heat waves and flooding will increase around the world, and rising sea levels will force people living on the coasts to move inland.

People living in the Arctic region may end up in rough shape, too, despite the potential economic benefits. Most of the infrastructure in the Arctic has been built on permafrost. When the frost thaws, houses will sink or collapse altogether. Water and oil pipelines will burst.

A 2007 University of Alaska-Anchorage study estimated that fixing the public infrastructure in Alaska could cost $6 billion by 2030. On the other side, somebody is going to get very, very rich retrofitting these buildings and bridges to survive the warmer weather.

Clearly, the Arctic thaw is going to leave the world in a tight spot, and will demand global attention. So although the Arctic may be losing its ice, its stock in the political arena is just going to heat up.

Excerpted from the November-December 2010 issue of Mental_Floss, the magazine “where knowledge junkies get their fix.” www.mentalfloss.com

This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.