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.
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Economics – not climate – opens the waySkip to next paragraph
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It is easy to view the increased presence of humans in the polar zones as a direct result of climate change, which has reduced the area and thickness of summer Arctic sea ice by half over the past 50 years, and continues to bleed 200 billion tons of ice from the Antarctic ice sheets each year. But sailors from European countries have been harvesting resources from the high Arctic for at least 400 years; they were driven there by factors other than climate.
The island of Spitsbergen sits 500 miles north of Norway, devoid of trees, 60 percent of its land hidden beneath glacial ice hundreds of feet thick. But by 1620, just 25 years after its discovery, English and Dutch whalers were already plying its waters, building factories on land where the blubber from butchered whales was cooked into oil and shipped back in barrels to light and fuel Europe.
Whalers were driven to Spitsbergen by a surge in the price of grain and vegetable oils in Europe, which led to increased use of whale oil as a fuel for lighting, says Dag Avango, a science and industrial historian at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm who has explored the ruins of factories on Spitsbergen and studied government records. As bowhead whales near Europe were wiped out, he says, the Europeans pursued the dwindling populations north to Spitsbergen, and then farther afield to Greenland.
A similar wave of expansion into the Arctic is occurring today. Northern nations are hardly waiting for sea ice to retreat; they are already exploring areas of the Arctic Ocean rarely visited before. Some important geopolitical questions will hinge on exploration of the seafloor.
"The Arctic Ocean is very poorly mapped," says Christian Marcussen, a geophysicist with the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland in Copenhagen, Denmark. "If you look at the surface of the moon it's better mapped than the deep oceans."
About 22 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves may hide beneath the Arctic seafloor, and ownership of vast swaths of it may hinge on how a handful of geographic features are interpreted. Scientists are trying to determine which areas of seafloor belong, geologically, to which continents.
In September 2007, a pair of icebreakers plowed north of Greenland through some of the world's most recalcitrant sea ice. The ships meandered to avoid places where wind had pushed the ice floes into pressure ridges as much as 50 feet thick. As the ships traveled, scientific instruments submerged below the ravages of the jostling ice blocks picked up sonic reflections from the seafloor. The instruments mapped the seafloor's ups and downs, and the thickness of mud layers draped over its bedrock.
That cruise was part of an ongoing effort by five Arctic nations (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia, and the United States) to map the Arctic seafloor and claim territorial rights for oil, gas, and other resources hidden beneath it. These efforts, carried out under Article 76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, involve legalistic calculations of seafloor slope, depth, sediment thickness, and, in some cases, even the types of rocks on the bottom.