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The Transformation of the Arctic

By Rob Huebert

The Arctic faces a transformation of epic proportions. Formerly a region of isolation from the rest of the world, it was home to only a small number of northern inhabitants such as the Inuit, who had adapted to a very specialized way of life to live there. For the rest of humanity, it was a forbidden and formidable region that remained a location of beauty, wonder, and mystery. Its extreme climates and geographical expanse meant that it remained off limits except for its northern indigenous population for much of its history. All of this is now changing. The Arctic now faces not one, but at least four major transformational processes that are now recasting the entire world.

Any one of these forces by itself would alter the Arctic, but all four taken together means that it is now becoming very different from what it was. Climate change, resource development, new technologies, and new geopolitical forces are all converging in this region. It is not clear what this transformation will ultimately mean for the Arctic and its people, but it is clear it will soon be very different.

Climate change is a global phenomenon. But it is now understood that its  impacts are the strongest in the Arctic. Rising temperatures are eliminating the permanent ice cover of the Arctic Ocean, melting the glaciers and ice cover of Greenland, and reducing the permafrost of the entire region—to name but a few of its most dramatic impacts on the North. There have been other periods in Earth’s history where warming trends had eliminated the ice cover, but these were before the arrival of human beings. This generation will be the first to see an open Arctic Ocean in the summer months. This will have severe impacts on the existing flora and fauna of the region. It will allow for the arrival of new non-Arctic based activities and peoples in the region on a scale that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago.

At the same time, the modernization and growth of the Asia-Pacific economies have placed new demands on resource development to fuel the associated growth of these societies along with the existing demands created by Western societies. The Arctic is believed to hold vast amounts of resources that may play an important role in meeting this new demand. The Canadian North is already an important producer of diamonds, and one of the world’s largest iron ore deposits is now coming onto production in that country. Russia, Norway, Canada and the United States all anticipate new Arctic production of oil and gas in the coming decades. Non-Arctic states, such as China, are also hoping that the arrival of these new resources will assist in meeting their own demands.

New communications and transportation technologies have also assisted in the global expansion of the region. New standards of shipbuilding and improvements in various communication technologies based on new space assets and computerization mean that even if the ice were not melting, there would be increasing activity in the region.

The fourth global trend—the transforming geopolitical environment—directly impacts the region. The onset of the Cold War had effectively frozen international cooperation in the circumpolar world. Its subsequent end provided for a new era of cooperation between the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark. The former adversaries found it possible to cooperate on enviromental issues in the North and to create new governance institutions and agreements such as the Arctic Council. This era of cooperation lasted from 1989 to 2014, and is responsible for significant international cooperation improvements.

At the end of the 1990s, the dramatic entry of China as a major power in the international system was a major change in the geopolitical environment. This was the result of significant alterations of the Chinese economic system that allowed the country’s economy to experience substantial growth and expansion. With this improved economic reality, the Chinese were able to expand their activities worldwide, and this included the Arctic region. They are increasingly active in the conduct scientific research and have been expanding their economic activities in the region. They have also aggressively pursued increasing participation in Arctic governance. 

Very recently, a third geopolitical trend cast a shadow over the cooperation that has been achieved in the last decade. Russian actions in Ukraine have created a major divide between the Western Arctic states and Russia. It is too soon to determine how significant and long lasting the impact of these damaged relations will be. But it has also highlighted the increased military activities that have been taking place in the region since the middle 2000s. Clearly, events in Beijing and the Ukraine now influence what happens in the Arctic.

Any of these global trends would have a significant impact on the Arctic region. Having the four of them occurring at the same time creates forces that are not yet fully understood. In some instances these forces complement each other, in others they contradict. For example, the combination of improved communication and transportation technologies with the overall impact of climate change means that it will be easier for Non-Arctic actors to engage in activities in the region. 

The increased demand for resources provides an important motivation for engaging upon such activities. But the overall geopolitical environment will strongly affect the circumstances in which these events occur. When the system will operate on a cooperative basis, there will be increased economic, cultural, and scientific activities in the region. In a confrontational environment, the result will be much more mixed, with increased military activities but decreased economic and scientific actions.

Overall, these four global trends are recasting the structure and identity of the Arctic region. It will no longer be the isolated frigid zone in which all but the heartiest avoid. Its transformation ultimately means that it will increasingly become interconnected with the rest of the world—for better or for worse, but it will not remain as it was.

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Rob Huebert is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary. His area of research interests include international relations, strategic studies, the Law of the Sea, maritime affairs, Canadian foreign and defense policy, and circumpolar relations. 

[Photo courtesy of Jon Kristian Bernhardsen and Euno]

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