How the world will change (part one)

In the first of two excerpts from his book How the World Will Change With Global Warming, Trausti Valsson says the retreat of Arctic pack ice will lead to new shipping routes in a spatially altered world.

The activation of the polar areas – especially that of the Arctic – will occur as the global climate continues to get warmer. In the past, extreme cold has led to year-round ice cover and has primarily been the prohibiting factor for limiting the development and presence and a more extended range of biota and human activities.

Global shipping, utilising the shortest distance between continents via the Arctic Ocean, has therefore not been possible despite courageous historical attempts to find a passage. The warming of the Arctic, on the other hand, will mean that the whole northern part of the globe – the site of most of the landmass of Earth – will become open to a different and increasing biota and, eventually, to the development of a system of important central areas for human activities. This will lead to a spatial system of centres that, in many ways, will be different from that of the globe today.

The two basic spatial systems of the globe, the semi-spherical system of the northern hemisphere and today’s middle-latitude ribbon around the globe, will co-exist for a long time to come, but the importance of semi-spherical space will gradually be strengthened at the expense of the central ribbon space. At the same time that it loses some of its uniqueness, the ribbon space will expand to the north. As the North continues to warm, it will, as a result, become spatially stronger. The importance of the South, in contrast, will weaken as, in many areas, it becomes undesirably hot for human activities.

Contributing to the decline of the spatial system of the ribbon is the fact that many of its central areas will be getting so hot that the southern half of today’s ribbon will be divided from the northern half by a belt of almost uninhabitable arid areas.

In response to global warming, the southern part of the then-divided ribbon of habitation will also move towards the southern polar area – just as the northern part of the ribbon will be moving northward. The southern part of the ribbon, however – unlike the northern part, will lose importance since, in general, activity on the globe will be moving north. The northern hemisphere in the process will become – with excessive global warming – more or less the future home of mankind.

Like the northern hemisphere, the southern one also currently has large sparsely populated areas in southern Africa, southern South America and the Antarctic. There are four reasons why the southern hemisphere will not get as much of a boost from global warming as the northern one – besides not being as large in terms of land area:

1) The landmass of Antarctica is not a direct continuum of the land spaces of the southern hemisphere, as the Southern Ocean separates it from the other continents; 2) This means that a comparable slow, gradual movement of settlements towards the South Pole will not be possible in the same way that will be possible in the northern hemisphere; 3) Furthermore, Antarctica is a polar area rather than a sub-polar area, like the Arctic Rim, which means that a very long time would be required before it could become liveable and in competition with the Arctic Rim. In addition, 4) Antarctica does not seem to have as many valuable resources – such as oil and gas – as does the Arctic Rim.

These reasons, taken together, mean that it makes sense – in terms of a global planning policy – to designate large global conservation areas in the Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, rather than areas in the Arctic.

As the whole northernmost part of the globe will be getting warmer at a much higher rate than the rest of the world, it is not only the Arctic Rim and the Arctic Ocean where epoch-making occurrences will be taking place with global warming. […] In all this development, however, it is of primary importance that the Arctic will, with thegradual retreat of the Arctic pack ice, become open to extensive shipping.

Following are the five steps of how the pack ice will retreat and then how this will lead to progressive steps in Arctic shipping.

The first step in the retreat of the ice from the West Siberian coast has already started during the summer months. Cargo ships are gradually going further east along the coast in the summer without the help of icebreakers. However, at present the narrow and shallow straits between the islands and the mainland make it impossible to employ large ships for transportation along this route.

The next step, a more massive retreat of the pack ice, which will mean a huge difference, will possibly occur around 2030. In this period, the pack ice will have retreated so far from the Siberian coast and its islands that large ships will be able to navigate through deeper waters, most probably all the way into the North Pacific Ocean.

For various reasons, the northwestern Arctic shipping route through the Canadian archipelago will not open as fast as the northeastern shipping route north of the Siberian coast. In the period from about 2050 to 2070, the pack ice of the Siberian half of the Arctic Ocean will have retreated almost to the North Pole in the summer. Of course it is not only summertime shipping that is important but this retreat of the ice in summer will mean that the area will only be covered by a thin coating of that year’s ice in the winter. That will mean that ships comparable to today’s semi-icebreaker rating will be able to pass through the thin ice in the winter without the help of ships with a full icebreaker rating.

As the ships will now be able to go directly from the Bering Strait over the North Pole into the Atlantic, this sea route, first of all, will be highly competitive as it is much shorter than the curved sea route along the Siberian coast. This shorter sea route will primarily mean an advantage for the ships that will be coming from the Pacific and headed for the eastern coast of North America. These ships will enter the Atlantic through the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland, thus increasing the importance of the ports in northeastern Canada.

Hudson Bay will have also become largely free of ice and the importance of Churchill [in Canada’s Manitoba province] will also increase. The great advantage of ships being able to navigate freely in Hudson Bay – which is about half the size of the Mediterranean Sea – is that this body of water, which reaches into the central area of Canada, will facilitate transportation to and from central Canada. Previously, Churchill has been largely developed as a railhead and port for some exportation of wheat and other grains from the Canadian plains, but the ice has been a big problem. More recently, Churchill has also become a tourist centre. With global warming, Churchill, like other northern areas, will continue to develop.

Many scientists predict that the next steps in the development of the Arctic sea routes will be the opening of routes through the archipelago in northern Canada.

The fifth and last step in the opening up of shipping activity in the Arctic Ocean will probably happen around 2100. By then most of the Arctic Ocean will probably be ice free even in winter. By this time, most of the Arctic Rim will have developed substantially in terms of industry, mining and oil and gas exploitation.

An ice-free Arctic Ocean that approaches a circular space will allow a multitude of trans-Arctic Ocean shipping lanes between the various towns and ports of the Arctic Rim. By 2050, transportation from the rim of the Arctic area into the depths of northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia will already have developed, continuing to open more new areas filled with tremendous resources. This will, at first, happen with shipping along the rivers that, at first, will only be ice-free during the summer months.

This prediction of how new settlement develops from the ocean coast, and then gradually inland, via rivers, is the way new areas have been settled earlier in most regions of the globe. At the same time as the inland areas become developed, shipping from the Arctic Rim into the two largest world oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic, will also have increased greatly.

Of course, it is not only the Arctic area itself that will benefit from the warmer climate and the increase in global shipping in the area. The area that is probably going to be most impacted, and very soon, is the area on both sides of the narrow Bering Strait that connects the Arctic Ocean with the Pacific. To the west of this strait is the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula and to the east the US state of Alaska. This strait will eventually also become of huge geopolitical importance, comparable to the Strait of Gibraltar in earlier periods of world history.

Kamchatka Peninsula, which is about the size of Great Britain, is very rich in resources. To the west of it lies the Sea of Okhotsk, which is about the size of the Mediterranean. Harbours in this area have already started to evolve, but the harbour that is most likely to thrive is Petropavlovsk.

A second very interesting point is that China has no access to the Pacific from its northern regions, only from its central coastline, which with northern trends, is very negative to China.

Alaska is located on the eastern side of the Bering Strait. The added shipping that will navigate the Bering Strait will increase the importance of Alaska’s western and southern sea coasts, and most probably also the northern coast, which is the site of huge oil and gas reserves.

South of the Bering Strait are the Aleutians, a curved chain of islands that is the extension of the Alaskan Peninsula, where several harbours are located. Ships coming out of the Bering Strait and sailing west to Canada and the USA, or east to China and Japan, will be passing by the peninsula and through the archipelago, giving some of the harbours the potential to become important supply depots for Arctic shipping.

The ocean area where the North Atlantic opens into the Arctic Ocean is much wider than the Bering Strait and consists of three main “gates”. The westernmost gate is the Davis Strait between Canada and Greenland, about 340 kilometres wide. The Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland (286 kilometres wide) will, in due time, become important for Arctic shipping. The third and the widest gate – and the most ice-free – is the gate between Iceland and Norway, which is about 800 kilometres wide. Here the sea lane divides into two: a lane east of the UK to the northern border of Europe and another one passing west of the UK into the Atlantic. This gate between Iceland and Norway will be, for a long time, the most important gate into the North Atlantic area.

The importance of these gates has already started to become apparent with the beginning of enormous oil and gas transportation from western Siberia to northeast America and northern Europe.

During World War II, and later during the cold war that followed, the gate between Greenland, Iceland and the UK, called the GIUK gate, was of strategic importance. During the war, all the ships coming from the USA — with supplies to arm and maintain Russia as an eastern front in the battle against the Germans — came through this gate.

Iceland, which was occupied by the Allies, played a huge role because of its location in the middle of this gate.

From Iceland, the Atlantic convoys received support and protection from battleships and airbases. After the Second World War, the former Allies, the USA and the Soviet Union, became bitter enemies. The only route for the Soviet-Russian navy to enter the Atlantic was the GIUK gate, which became a very important first line of defence for the Americans. The Americans, therefore, signed a bilateral defence treaty with Iceland and were allowed to increase the size of the war-time military base in Keflavík. The Americans also set up an extensive system of submarine surveillance and of radar and air surveillance, with stations in Greenland, Iceland and the UK. This system meant that the Soviet-Russian nuclear submarines could not approach the USA close enough to launch missiles without being detected.

Because of the huge oil and gas transports which will go through this gate in the very near future, this gate will regain huge geopolitical importance. It is, therefore, rather surprising that the US government practically cancelled the bilateral agreement guaranteeing the defence of Iceland in the spring of 2006.

This act of the US government is a clear demonstration of the lack of long-term thinking and a lack of understanding of how important the Arctic, Arctic oil reserves and other resources, and Arctic shipping routes will be in the future. This act was a deep insult to the Icelandic nation and the USA will have a hard time regaining its earlier position in this island nation with its strategic emplacement in the middle of the GIUK gate.

NEXT: A “global”, not a “ribbon” world

Trausti Valsson is a professor of planning at the University of Iceland. He holds a PhD in environmental planning from the University
of California, Berkeley, and is the author of
How the World Will Change With Global Warming (University of Iceland Press, 2006) and 11
other books.

Copyright: Trausti Valsson