What Does Melting Sea Ice Mean for the Future of the Arctic?

A New Strategy for Conservation

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Why does the Arctic have to be developed as we have done in the past? Why can’t we try another way?

The ocean in this worldview is taken for granted. It is characterized by scale into seas, bays, and coastal arrangements; it is connected to land only by the incursions of rivers, the interruptions of lakes, like watery roots that feed the needs of human settlements that mostly line the edge. We focus on ourselves and apply to this familiar chart the latitude and longitude of our aspirations, our successes and our failures.

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thomas hallermann | marine photobank

What might it take to upset this way of looking at the world?

Consider an entirely different perspective. Look at the interrelation of land and sea not from the side but from the top, that is, abandon the equator as an orienting line, shift to the high latitudes, and observe the circumpolar views of the Arctic and Antarctica.

Let’s look at the north to see what we can see. First, we observe an entirely different arrangement of land and nations. The ocean becomes suddenly diminished, covered with ice and encircled by a very different diagram of arbitrary political boundaries. The United States presence is reduced from a vast tri-coastal continental expanse to the marginal extent of Alaska. The Scandinavian presence is similarly modest — Norway, Sweden, and Finland with minor connection, Iceland as a small island state, and Denmark aligned through its territorial possession, Greenland, itself with a perimeter many times that of these other nations. Canada has a long and convoluted connection, and the Russian Federation out-distances and dominates them all with a coastline that occupies almost half the total circumference of our view.

This visualization challenges our conventional understanding, and graphically reveals and rearranges the priorities of access and influence. At meetings of the Arctic Council, the primary body for Arctic policy, the contiguous nations have an obvious place at the table, while others, like Japan and China and Brazil, lay claim to involvement if only in search of research opportunities, extraction of rich mineral, oil and gas resources, and a presumably rich fishery to exploit as such industry everywhere else on earth has been critically diminished. Ironically, the balance of power is redefined in different parameters. Who matters now almost comes down to something as finite as who has the most icebreakers to allow passage.

But that ice is melting, at record levels, and is revealing an emerging ocean, more vulnerable to every use known to our consuming society, an all-you-can-take opportunity that excites profiteers and profits and ups the economic anticipation for all parties. Here come the giant cruise ships, the ice-certified tankers, the industrial factory vessels, the floating rigs, and the deep-sea extractors, all leveraged by government subsidies and predatory lenders, manically justified by calculations and returns that are not necessarily correct or achievable.

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svalbard, norway. thomas hallermann | marine photobank

We are poised to bring our conventional thinking and presumptuous enterprise to impact on this emerging ocean. But what is the logic? If these activities have already proven bankrupt and destructive, why would we perpetuate them to corrupt a new place? In the Antarctic, we have chosen a different strategy — by defining that area as a commons for knowledge and research, exploiting its inaccessibility to conserve its unique ecology. But the Arctic is a different situation as result of accelerated climate change and the undeniable presence and needs of the many thousands of people live there, today mostly in poverty and social distress.

Why does the Arctic have to be developed as we have done in the past? Why can’t we try another way — that enables value through common practice to assure sustainability of limited resources, and to share that value through cooperative structure and behavior, and to demonstrate a possibility for utility and equitable governance that can in execution be the most valuable outcome of all — a new way to engage the land and the ocean for the benefit of all mankind, a new strategy to construct not destruct, to conserve not exhaust.

Let’s not waste the challenge of an emerging ocean. We will have no second chance.

An Emerging Ocean first appeared as a 5-minute audio episode on World Ocean Radio. Host Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. Online at worldoceanobservatory.org.

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Dedicated to sharing information about ocean issues: climate to trade, culture to governance. The sea connects all things. Online at WorldOceanObservatory.org.

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