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The Changing Face of the Arctic

Global climate change is creating new opportunities for international shipping.  The melting of Arctic sea ice has allowed ships to use more direct and cost effective routes.  For the moment, Arctic shipping lanes are not open year-round and are too unreliable for consistent commercial shipping.  Yet, things will soon be vastly different.  As fuel prices continue to rise and sea ice continues to melt, these Arctic routes will be increasingly used.  Once more, the International Maritime Organization’s new polar code is nearly finalized.  This would lower the insurance rates for Arctic vessels by making group insurance policies available, therefore making Arctic routes more affordable.  In addition to shipping lanes, the Arctic is home to important oil, gas, and mineral reserves.  There is also the potential for hugely productive fishing grounds, and adventure tourism has begun to expand into the Arctic.  The stage is being set for an unprecedented influx of human contact with the Arctic ecosystem.

Despite the growth of human interaction with the Arctic, this area with such great potential is vastly uncharted and has complex governance.  Multiple countries have some level of ownership – and some areas have no ownership at all.  As the Arctic continues to open to world commerce, a great many questions are left unanswered.  How will the Arctic be governed?  How will the environment be affected?  What is the most stainable way to manage this area?  To take an important first step in answering these vital questions, CMAP director Benjamin Halpern along with Arctic expert Oran Young and conservation planner Frank Davis have joined with a great team on the Arctic Options Project.  The Arctic Options Project is examining the possibilities for Arctic policies and their foreseeable consequences.  The goal of the project is to provide information for better Arctic policy planning.

The Arctic Options Project is investigating options on how to plan for the increase of human interaction with the Arctic while there is still time.  There are two major parts to the project – political and environmental.  The political group is comprised of governance and geopolitical experts.  They are looking into how corporations and governments will behave in their attempts to stake a claim in the Arctic.  The group will work through collaborative workshops to define future projections.  The workshops will examine how laws are established and play out on a global scale.

To gather more concrete information, the group is examining three current case studies.  The first is Western Greenland.  Western Greenland is under the governance of Denmark.  This area has lots of tourism and many shipping lanes that lead to Arctic routes.  A second case study is the Bering Sea – whose governance is shared by the United States and Russia.  These two world powers would also be main players in any future Arctic governance.  The Bering Sea is also a major shipping channel in and out of the Arctic, and is a key fishing area.  The final case study is a look at the high seas.  Like the Arctic, the high seas lack clear ownership.  There are few rules and little enforcement on the high seas.  Close analysis of these three areas will provide the governance group concrete information and serve as a guide to possible futures of the Arctic.

The second portion of the Arctic Options Project are the ecosystem scientists and sustainable planning experts who are researching how the environment will be affected by the influx of global commerce through the Arctic.  Ships’ ballast water further spreading invasive species, oil spills becoming a major threat, and sound pollution are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  The countless affects of the human invasion of the Arctic will need to be thoroughly studied if we are to sustainably manage this area in the future.

While the information gathered from the Arctic Options Projects will be essential in planning concretely for a sustainable future for the Arctic, the information will also be relevant throughout the world as we all try to plan for a sustainable future with a healthy economy.  These are both exciting and frightening times when one considers the possibilities.  With careful research and planning, we may all soon see an economically viable and sustainable Arctic.

-Valarie Chapman

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