Forecasting the Arctic’s Future

How will the Arctic change within our lifetimes? While not a crystal ball, there is a tangible example that is likely to foreshadow the future, at least in part of the Arctic. The formerly perennially frozen Eastern Russian, Alaskan, Canadian and Greenlandic Arctic is beginning to look much more like the Scandinavian Arctic and will likely begin to behave like the North Atlantic in terms of warmer water, species diversity, surface temperature moderation, ship traffic, and commercial potential.

It is beginning to look a lot like Scandinavia. Warmer surface and ocean conditions are causing Arctic sea ice to shrink and thin significantly. Consequently, sea ice is less perennial, meaning less energy is required to break through and maintain access over longer seasons. In short, formerly inhospitable Arctic waters are becoming easier to access for longer periods each year. Because of longer open water conditions, more ship classes will be approved for Arctic use. For several years, nations have already been building and continue to publicize new ice breakers and larger Arctic-capable transport ships. Interest continues to grow. The net effect of an opening Arctic with longer seasons will be lower shipping costs due to shortened distances, increased reliability, and greater frequency.

Beyond increased opportunities for shipping, access to a surfeit of previously inaccessible mineral resources is becoming more feasible. This new reality is most apparent in places like Greenland, which is losing over 500 trillion pounds of ice each year, a record pace. This rapid melting exposes mineral rich soils below, where high-quality deposits of uranium, gold, ilmenite, and rare earth minerals are being found in abundance. This will stimulate significant economic opportunities and elevate Greenland’s and much of the undiscovered Arctic’s positions as global suppliers of critical minerals, ultimately increasing Arctic economic development.

Early polar exploration had many drivers: nationalism, fame and glory, access to markets, treasure, and fisheries. These reasons still hold true today. Like in the Scandinavian Arctic, there is growing optimism and commercial interest in the potential of emergent Arctic fisheries. The Arctic will likely experience an explosion of species richness much like in the Western Barents and the Norwegian Sea, where warm and cold waters collide, providing an excellent habitat, important economics, and a domestic food supply.

The next few decades could bring dramatic changes. By 2040, ordinary merchant ships may be able to take the Northern Sea Route between China and Europe. By 2050, those ships may be able to cross the Transpolar Sea Route, which traverses the North Pole. Currently, the season is too short, the conditions are too treacherous and unpredictable, and the distance to help, if needed, is too far. However, the drive for economic opportunities in the Arctic will continue, as it has for centuries. Ultimately, success hinges on many factors: advances in technology, ability to comply with Arctic shipping mandates, availability of resources, the prices of those resources, and Arctic port availability. But above all else, what matters most is the continued cooperation of the environment.

Craig Fleener is a Senior Advisor on Arctic Policy for the Office of Governor Bill Walker, State of Alaska.

This essay is part of our Big Questions series.