Breaking the Ice

Seasoned polar mariner and academic Lawson Brigham travels the world as an Arctic expert. Here he outlines the interconnected issues affecting the region.

Weapons of Reason
7 min readMar 8, 2016


Words Lawson Brigham
Illustration Eve Lloyd Knight

The Arctic is undergoing extraordinary changes. A perfect storm of profound climate change, indigenous Arctic peoples’ challenges, globalisation and regional geopolitics is reshaping the Arctic’s importance in global affairs. Yet despite these stormy forces of change, the Arctic remains one of the most peaceful places on earth.

One reason for this paradox is that recent cooperation among the Arctic states has been quite positive, particularly within the Arctic Council — an intergovernmental forum of the eight Arctic states, established in 1996. The Council focusses its efforts on environmental protection and sustainable development and steers clear of military-security affairs.

Bilateral relations have also been strong, reflected in a key agreement between Norway and Russia in 2010 regarding their shared boundary in the Barents Sea.

Two international treaties concluded by the Arctic states — one for search and rescue (2011) and a second for oil spill preparedness and response (2013) — confirm that for safety and protection issues, these nations can reach consensus on historic, legally-binding arrangements. Today’s Arctic is simply not a hotly contested region.

“The Arctic is at the epicentre of anthropogenic climate change on the planet and is a bellwether for what future climates might be like in more southern regions.”

One of the great challenges for the Arctic’s future is to keep it peaceful and protected, while realising the potential economic benefits of developing the natural resources. Most of the Arctic (including its abundant natural resources) is under tight sovereign state control, but regional stability can be influenced by the rest of the world, such as the current situation in Ukraine. Even the once-remote Arctic is not immune from such events, and cannot be separated from the complexities and interconnectedness of modern geopolitics.

Despite the current political stability, how the Arctic states and a wider global community engage and craft international rules and regulations will go a long way to promoting peace and security. A new focus on Arctic issues within international bodies such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the World Meteorological Organization will bring the global community into discussions on many of the serious challenges confronting the region. The implementation of a mandatory IMO Polar Code for ships operating in polar waters, scheduled for 2015–17, is a good example of significant progress toward addressing the safety and environmental protection of Arctic communities and the marine environment.

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Polar environmental observations leave little doubt that the Arctic is warming at twice the temperatures for regions in lower latitudes. The Arctic is at the epicentre of anthropogenic climate change on the planet and is a bellwether for what future climates might be like in more southern regions. However, climate change is not the only force of Arctic change — many factors are at play and are interacting in complex ways.

Two of the Arctic nations, Norway and Russia, have significant links to Arctic oil and gas development that are key to their future economic survival. Arctic hydrocarbon production from these two states, and from additional nations in the future — for example, potential hydrocarbons found in offshore Greenland and Alaska — will inescapably link the region even more closely to global oil and gas markets, and thus to the eventual release of greenhouse gas emissions somewhere on the planet.

Source: The US Geological Survey.

Beyond oil and gas, the Arctic has an abundance of hard minerals. One of the largest zinc mines is in Arctic Alaska, and the world’s largest nickel and palladium mine is in Norilsk in western Siberia. The region is also home to other minerals such as rare earths and coal, fisheries and even freshwater reserves. These valuable natural resources are carried by ship in bulk cargoes out of the Arctic to new markets. Herein lies a general misunderstanding regarding future global shipping and trade routes. It is very clear shipping interests are taking advantage of the retreat of Arctic sea ice, which has provided greater marine access and potentially longer seasons of navigation. And it is Arctic natural resource development that is driving the need for marine transport systems.

A good example is to be found in the expanding use of Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR) during the summer and autumn seasons. Tankers, bulk carriers and LNG carriers are beginning to move natural resources from the Russian Arctic and northern Europe along the NSR, principally to the insatiable energy markets in Asia.

But these new routes are not revolutionising global trade. Arctic routes such as the NSR are seasonal and supplemental to other ice-free options provided by the Suez and Panama canals. One of the reasons is that the Arctic’s sea ice cover remains for nine months, limiting the possibilities of trans-Arctic voyages; this situation is likely to continue throughout the century and beyond. This is not to say trans-Arctic voyages using cargo ships are not possible — the carriage of containers into the Russian Arctic is one plausible future opportunity. However, trans-Arctic voyages are met with significant challenges including high-risk, higher insurance premiums, a lack of marine infrastructure like ports, and the vagaries of Arctic ice and weather.

“One of the great challenges for the Arctic’s future is to keep it peaceful and protected, while realising the potential economic benefits of developing the natural resources.”

Another frequently misunderstood Arctic topic is the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, which defines a 200 nautical mile ‘exclusive economic zone’ beyond each nations’ coastline) and how it applies to ongoing claims regarding the Arctic Ocean submitted to the UN Commission on the Continental Shelf. The claims involve extending sovereign rights to the seabed beyond the exclusive economic zone. These claims require a complex, lengthy legal process, which, over the coming decades will add to the changing dynamic of the Arctic Ocean’s legal regime.

The indigenous peoples feel the forces of Arctic change more than anyone else. The intersection of climate change and new global economic forces in the Arctic are challenging the very survival of the people who have lived in the north for millennia. As citizens of the Arctic states with deep cultural ties — and as evidenced by the essays that follow — they are met with a key challenge: how to share in the potentially great wealth being derived from Arctic lands and seas.

The Arctic states have an important responsibility to address the many impacts of Arctic change on indigenous culture and ways of life, but the way ahead is complex and intertwined with economic development issues and the regional rights of the Arctic communities. Most important will be for the Arctic states to continue to hear the voices of their indigenous people and involve them in the decision-making that impacts their lives in a changing polar environment.

Complexity is at the core of change in the Arctic, and many myths abound. Profound transformations are taking place that will require historic levels of international cooperation, not only among the Arctic states but within a larger global community of nations and the commercial world. There are credible grounds for optimism, but we need a foundation of better communication of actions and responses to Arctic change — and this foundation must start with the Arctic states themselves. Their responsible leadership will convey to the world a desire to keep the Arctic as a place of peace and stability, for their people and their history.

This article is taken from Weapons of Reason’s first issue: The Arctic. Read the next article: Our Hunger for Energy.
Weapons of Reason is a publishing project to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world by Human After All design agency.

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