Antarctica and the Arctic: A polar primer for the new great game
Antarctica and the Arctic are the focus of global hunger for untapped resources – and global warming has helped drive the polar rush.
Just after noon on Sept. 4, 2010, a squat, yellow-black cargo ship lumbered out of the Norwegian port of Kirkenes. Naked ridges of glacially scarred granite slid by on either side as the Nordic Barents motored toward the open sea with 41,000 tons of iron ore locked in her belly. It might have resembled a routine voyage to Western Europe. But the sense of normalcy vanished as the ship reached the mouth of the fiord, a geographic and economic crossroads at the extreme northern edge of Scandinavia.Skip to next paragraph
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Rather than proceeding forward toward Europe, the Barents swung slowly to the right – to the east. The ore in its hold was destined for smelters in China. To get there, the ship would do what few others have attempted: take a shortcut over the top of Asia, through 3,000 miles of Arctic seas haunted by drifting ice. It would be escorted by a nuclear-powered icebreaker from Russia.
Similar pioneering scenes are unfolding at the planet's opposite pole, the Antarctic. Each January at the height of the austral summer, fishing vessels venture south into waters that would be impenetrable if not for an accident of nature: Upwelling ocean water a couple of degrees above freezing creates a sliver of ice-free water along the Victoria Land coast, a keyhole that the fishing boats thread on their way to the world's southernmost waters. Reaching those waters, they unfurl several miles of cable with as many as 10,000 fishhooks into the sea. Just a few years ago, the fishing vessels didn't even come here; now, the fish they catch are served in white-tablecloth restaurants in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, eaten by people unaware of their exotic origin.
The cargo and fishing vessels pushing farther north and south reflect the rapid change both poles are undergoing. Once isolated from the rest of the world, they are now the object of increasing global focus. At stake are massive untapped energy sources in the north, the world's least-fished ocean waters in the south, and precious metals turning up in places such as Greenland and Antarctica.
Global warming may have cracked open the door to the poles, but worldwide hunger for resources is prying it wider, with greater force.
"It's globalization," says Lawson Brigham, a retired US Coast Guard icebreaker captain and now professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "Higher commodity prices will drive frontier development."
The geopolitical process that began centuries ago as the polar regions were explored continues today with countries as diverse as China, Russia, Ukraine, Britain, and Chile hovering to claim territory or resources. This maneuvering, say experts, will probably unfold without military conflict, but shaping the future of the poles will nonetheless depend on strategic assets whose importance has gone unrecognized.