But in the past few summers, so much ice has melted that the Northwest Passage actually became navigable. “We’ve never seen ice melt like this in history,” ice forecaster Luc Desjardins of the Canadian Ice Service said in 2008. That summer, two German tourist ships made it through; travel agents are now booking reservations for trips through the passage.
Commercial shipping operations—which abide by different regulations, require more long-term planning and cannot risk having to retreat to the longer route through the Panama Canal—are likely to follow the tourist ships once the passage is more dependably navigable. A single container ship using the route to reach New York City from China could save up to $2 million on fuel and Panama Canal tolls. The passage is expected to open to regular commercial shipping, in summers, sometime between 2013 and 2050. (Icebreakers have enabled the Soviet Union and Russia to use the Northeast Passage, also known as the Northern Sea Route, since the 1930s. When two German commercial cargo vessels made it through last summer, the first non-Russian ships to do so, they made headlines around the world.)
“The [entire North] Alaskan Coast may come to look like the coast of Louisiana today, filled with the lights of ships and oil rigs,” says Scott Borgerson, a visiting fellow for ocean governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But the opening of North Alaskan waters to ship traffic poses a host of new challenges for the Coast Guard, which is responsible for security and safety from the Bering Strait to Canada, some 1,000 miles. Security threats along Alaska’s long, unguarded coastline are likely to increase. There may be shipwrecks and fuel spills. “The Bering Strait will be the new choke point for world shipping,” Coast Guard Adm. Gene Brooks told me. “We’re going to have problems.” In recent summers, the Coast Guard has racheted up its visits to Arctic-area villages to learn about the people and operating conditions in the north. It has helicoptered in teams of doctors and veterinarians and held small-boat and helicopter exercises to practice rescue missions. But, Brooks added, “We don’t have the infrastructure: radio towers, communication, all the things that states in the lower 48 have.”
For their part, Alaskan Eskimos worry that the problems associated with increased traffic will affect their food supply. Much of their diet comes from seals, walrus and whales, which may be killed or displaced by human activity. (Packaged food is available but costly. In one town I saw a 16-ounce jar of mayonnaise for $7. A gallon of milk cost $11.) “It is alarming to contemplate the explosion of ship traffic on subsistence hunting and animal migration,” said Vera Metcalf, director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission.
But less ice also spells opportunity. Under a 1982 international treaty called the Convention on the Law of the Sea, Arctic nations can claim sea floor as national territory if they can prove, by mapping the ocean floor, that the areas are extensions of their continental shelves. The implications are staggering because an estimated 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves lies beneath Arctic seas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Energy and ocean policy consultant Paul Kelly calls the potential expansion “the greatest division of lands on earth possibly ever to occur, if you add up claims around the world.”
The United States, which stands to gain territory the size of California, is woefully behind in the race to develop its territorial claims, critics say. Russia and Norway have already submitted claim applications to a United Nations-based commission that will help determine ownership. Russia and Canada have beefed up their Arctic military forces, and Canada has installed sensors on Devon Island in the high arctic to detect rogue ships.
In 2007, Russia dropped a titanium flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole—an act that some have likened in its wake-up effect to the 1957 launch of Sputnik. Artur Chilingarov, the Russian legislator and explorer who dropped the flag, boasted that “the Arctic is ours.” Russia has 18 icebreakers and plans to build floating nuclear power plants for use in the Arctic. In contrast, the United States has two polar-class icebreakers.
In fact, the United States will have little say in the decision to award land claims because some members of the U.S. Senate, citing national security, have blocked ratification of the 1982 treaty for more than two decades. “If this was a baseball game,” Admiral Brooks has said, “the United States wouldn’t be on the field, the stands, even the parking lot.”
“Until now the Arctic was in a frozen state, both literally and figuratively,” Borgerson said. “As it thaws, these new issues emerge.”