The Great Game Moves North

As the Arctic Melts, Countries Vie for Control

The Arctic is the fastest-warming region on earth and continues to melt at a breathtaking rate. Last summer, for the first time in history, the polar icecap retreated far enough to open sea routes north of Eurasia as well as North America, and it is expected to be completely ice-free during the summer months in 2013. Boreal forests are appearing where there was once just frozen tundra, and last summer, the first wild fire was recorded north of Alaska's Brooks range, in a region where the local Inuit dialects lack a word for forest fire.

In an article in Foreign Affairs last year, I described how not only is the climate changing fast, but the region's geopolitics are also rapidly transforming. As the Arctic coastal states begin to make claims over both these transit passages and newly accessible deep-water resources, a Great Game is developing in the world's far north.

The next few years will be critical in determining whether the region's long-term future will be one of international harmony and the rule of law, or a Hobbesian free-for-all. Although the Bush administration took a huge step by publishing a new Arctic policy during its final week in office, the Obama administration must do far more to keep Washington from being further marginalized in this geostrategically important region.

The polar icecap in the central Arctic Ocean thinned by half between 2001 and 2007. Other signs -- such as warmer deep-water ocean currents, greater albedo feedback loops, and massive ice shelves breaking free -- point to further melting. Scientists are increasingly concerned that the thawing permafrost will disgorge millions of tons of methane, unleashing what some refer to as a "climate bomb," a runaway warming cycle that could dramatically raise the planet's temperature.

The Arctic may be open to year-round shipping within a few decades, if not sooner. Eventually, the Arctic, like the Baltic Sea or Great Lakes, will freeze in the winter and melt in the summer. Shipping companies are taking notice. The German-based Beluga Shipping company, for example, is planning to move cargo from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Northeast Passage this summer unassisted by icebreaker escort.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis