Welcome to the world’s newest blue water ocean: the Arctic Ocean. You are forgiven if you think the Arctic is a mostly frozen and forbidding place covered in darkness for most of the year. It still is. But this ocean is rapidly changing: since 1979 Arctic sea ice maximum extent has dropped by an average of 2.8 percent per decade; in the summertime, the ice cap declined at 13.5 percent per decade; and the Greenland Ice Sheet lost an estimated 9,103 gigatons or over 9 trillion tons of ice since 1900 and between 25 to 35 gigatons annually. On land, the near-surface permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere is projected to decline by 20 percent relative to today’s area by 2040, and it could be reduced by as much as two-thirds by 2080 under a scenario of high greenhouse-gas emissions. We may be at the dawn of a new Arctic Age.
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The twenty-first century maritime Arctic is experiencing extraordinary change. Profound climate change and globalization, and the connection of Arctic natural resources to world markets are shaping new opportunities for the global shipping enterprise in this once remote region. The Arctic Ocean’s sea ice cover, responding to regional and global warming, has been dramatically changing in ice extent, thickness, and character during more than four decades. In turn, these physical changes in sea ice provide for greater marine access and potentially longer seasons of navigation throughout the Arctic Ocean.
The polar regions are an important zone for China’s emergence as a global power. China has long-term strategic interests in the Arctic and economic interests are part of the reason why China is drawn to be active there, though not the sole factor. There has been a lot of international debate and media coverage of China’s economic interests in the Arctic; however, relative to the government’s strategic agenda, China’s major companies have been slow to take up the opportunities available to them in the polar regions and are still relatively weak in polar equipment and expertise.
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.
The Arctic has a particular appeal for Russian national consciousness – and is duly prioritized by Russia’s ambitious and unambiguously authoritarian leadership. President Vladimir Putin is personally committed to advancing Russia’s interests in the High North and has recently confirmed his unwavering engagement at the “Arctic – Territory of Dialogue” conference in Arkhangelsk. Richness in natural resources, particularly natural gas and oil, is a key part of this appeal and a major focus of this priority. But Russia’s Arctic dreams will eventually collide with a harsh reality: Arctic reserve estimates and the assessments of their accessibility are seriously exaggerated.