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Five Arctic Myths Debunked

This article is an excerpt from the paper "Demystifying the Arctic," which was originally published by the World Economic Forum.

By the members of the WEF Global Agenda Council on the Arctic

The Global Agenda Council on the Arctic has highlighted five particularly pervasive myths about the region:

Myth No. 1: The Arctic is an uninhabited, unclaimed frontier with no regulation or governance.

Fact: With a population of four million people and an annual economy of roughly 230 billion USD, the region is under
 the jurisdiction of eight countries (the Russian Federation, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Greenland/Denmark, Canada, and the U.S.), with few territorial border disputes among them.

Even offshore in the Arctic Ocean, most coastal waters fall within existing Exclusive Economic Zones, with further seafloor sovereignty extensions pending or likely under Article 76 of UNCLOS. In Canada, Greenland and the U.S., local control by aboriginal communities and regional business corporations can be substantial. In short, the Arctic is neither an unclaimed, contested region nor a closed military zone; it is governed under similar national structures and international frameworks to those in other areas of the world.

Myth No. 2: The region’s wealth of natural resources is readily available for development.

Fact: Many technological, infrastructural, economic, 
and environmental challenges impede natural resource development in the Arctic. Extracting resources is never 
a simple operation in polar environments, and resource development will require high levels of investment, including development of specialized technologies.

The region is
 not homogenous with regard to development potential; strong distinctions exist between onshore and offshore environments, and between different regions and countries with regard to existing levels of infrastructure, population, environmental sensitivity, and accessibility.

Myth No. 3: The Arctic will become immediately accessible as sea ice continues to disappear.

Fact: The opposite is true on land, owing to shorter winter ice-road seasons and destabilized ground due to thawing permafrost. Even in the Arctic Ocean, sea ice is not the sole obstacle to shipping and maritime structures such as drilling platforms. Other challenges include polar darkness, poor charts, lack of critical infrastructure and navigation control systems, low search-and-rescue capability, high insurance and escort costs, and other non-climatic factors. The related myth that climate change will create an ice-free Arctic Ocean year-round is also false, as sea ice will always re-form during winter, and ice properties and coverage will vary greatly within the region.

Myth No. 4: The Arctic is tense with geopolitical disputes and is the next flashpoint for conflict.

Fact: The region is a powerful example of international collaboration, with the Arctic countries largely conforming
 to standard international treaties (e.g. UNCLOS), regional forums (e.g. the Arctic Council), and regular diplomatic channels to resolve their differences. The widely publicized sovereignty-extension petitions now under way for the Arctic Ocean seafloor, for example, are science-based and not particularly controversial, with the relevant parties following the same UN procedure used to settle other continental shelf disputes around the globe.

Myth No. 5: Climate changes in the Arctic are solely of local and regional importance.

Fact: The effects of global climate change felt by the
 Arctic have globally relevant repercussions, with numerous impacts flowing back to the rest of the world. These include faster sea level rise owing to greater ice loss from the Greenland ice sheet; altered weather patterns due to
jet stream perturbation; altered planetary energy balance resulting from lower light-reflectivity of formerly snow-and-ice-covered surfaces; increasing greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost soils and methane hydrates; and the psychological loss of globally iconic species like the polar bear. Within the Arctic countries (especially Canada, the Russian Federation, and the U.S.), reduced winter-road access over frozen water and ground presents non-trivial socio-economic costs to Arctic populations, transportation networks, and global commodity markets.

*****

*****

WEF's Global Agenda Council on the Arctic seeks to address the challenges and opportunities facing the Arctic today.

[Photos courtesy of the World Economic Forum]

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