The Arctic and Antarctica

Environmental changes in the Arctic will shape the global climate and access to key transit lanes over the next five years. Warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the Arctic will continue to produce dramatic and newsworthy images that have become established earlywarning signs of the changing climate, such as stunning, high-resolution video of melting glaciers and thinning ice sheets and vivid photos of starving iconic mammals. However, other transformations under way are just as momentous, including the rapid acidification of Arctic Ocean waters, the decline in reflectivity that pushes solar heat back into space, and the temperature-induced ecological shifts that impact microbes and mammals alike. Beyond the physical changes that directly affect the 4 million people who live in the Arctic, linkages are increasingly evident between elevated Arctic temperatures and extreme weather events in mid-latitude continents, such as intense heatwaves in Russia, more severe winters in Europe, and high variability in Indian summer monsoons.

  • Shipping. Fully ice-free summers probably remain a decade or more away, but an increasingly navigable Arctic makes the region a more salient economic and security issue. The melting of sea ice raises the possibility of drastically shorter commercial routes between major trading blocs, such as exports from China, Japan, and South Korea to Europe and North America. A more open Arctic, however, brings substantial hurdles—and potential calamities—as the unpredictability of ice, weather, and fog increases in already harsh conditions. In the next five years, pioneering efforts will outpace improvements in infrastructure needed for operation in the region, such as ship-to-shore communication nodes, transshipment facilities, refueling stations, and vessel tracking. Armed forces are typically the only national assets with the physical capabilities and monitoring equipment to operate in such an inhospitable environment, ensuring a military presence in the Arctic beyond the responsibilities of search-and-rescue and other contingencies.
  • Natural Resources. Dangerous weather and sea ice will not dampen commercial or national interests in the Arctic’s enormous natural resources. The largest unexplored area for petroleum remaining on Earth—which could contain well over 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of liquid natural gas—will draw continued interest in offshore drilling. Exploitation is unlikely to become economically profitable in the next five years, however—barring an unanticipated, sharp rebound in oil prices—and has been the subject of public protests. Likewise, onshore mineral development will remain largely theoretical, particularly in the absence of robust road and rail infrastructure. Warming waters increase access for commercial fishing, but environmental change and ocean acidification will have unpredictable effects on Arctic fish stocks.

Antarctica’s warming has been slowed by the great depth and expanse of the Southern Ocean, with its massive thermal inertia relative to the continents ringing the Arctic. Furthermore, the several-kilometer-thick ice sheets at the South Pole are generally slower to respond than the several-meter-thick floating sea ice in the Arctic.

  • However, the rapid disintegration of the Larsen B ice shelf in 2002 and the ongoing retreat of the Pine Island and Thwaites Glacier show how fast ice at the periphery of Antarctica can be lost as a result of ocean and atmospheric warning.
  • Scientists have recently identified a rapidly developing crack in Larsen C—Antarctica’s fourth-largest ice shelf—that could generate a breakaway piece of ice roughly the size of Delaware. Once predicted to destabilize over 50 years, some scientific estimates now project that Larsen C might fracture within five years.
  • Loss of ice shelves and glacial retreat that expose the ice of Antarctica’s interior to ocean water will accelerate sea level rises; West Antarctica alone has the potential to raise sea level by more than three meters worldwide. Whether this rise materializes over multiple millennia, centuries, or sooner remains an open question, however.

Beyond its role in doomsday sea level rise scenarios, Antarctica remains an important region geopolitically. The Antarctica Treaty of 1959—which froze the claims of 12 nations and established the continent as a scientific reserve—remains perhaps the most successful international treaty in modern history. However, an uptick in Russian and Chinese activities on the continent would fuel anxiety over possible violations of the treaty, especially among claimant states like Australia, New Zealand, and Norway.

  • Controversial activities in the Southern Ocean, such as Japanese whaling and Chinese krill harvesting, will continue to spur diplomatic disputes within the Antarctic Treaty System.

Geopolitical Relevance of the Regions in Next Five Years: Avenues for Cooperation. Both the Antarctic and especially the Arctic have featured prominently in national security strategies, and diminishing sea ice is increasing economic opportunities in the region while raising Arctic nations’ concerns about safety and the environment. Harsh weather and longer term economic stakes have encouraged cooperation among the countries bordering the Arctic, but economic and security concerns will raise the risk of increased competition between Arctic and non-Arctic nations over access to sea routes and resources. Sustained low oil prices, on the other hand, would reduce the attractiveness of potential Arctic energy resources.

  • Russia will almost certainly continue to bolster its military presence along its northern coast to improve its perimeter defense and control of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It will also almost certainly continue to seek international support for its extended continental shelf claim and its right to manage ship traffic within its EEZ. If Russian-Western relations deteriorate, Moscow might become more willing to disavow established international processes or organizations in the Arctic and act unilaterally to protect these interests.
  • Arctic Council. The Arctic Council, made up of the eight nations that have sovereign territory within the Arctic Circle—Canada, Denmark (by virtue of Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States—continues to grow in prominence. Arctic Council members are seeking to define their territorial boundaries in the Arctic Sea according to the UN convention on the Law of the Sea—which all members except the US have ratified. Since its creation in 1996, the Council has granted permanent participant status to six indigenous Arctic peoples’ organizations and has given permanent observer status to China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, and the UK. The addition of observer nations that are thousands of miles from the Arctic reflects intensified global interest in the region, even though the Council’s charter excludes security issues.

Other Considerations: Greenlandic Independence Efforts. The former Danish colony has gradually gained autonomy since the Home-Rule Act of 1979, and a majority of Greenland’s residents favor full independence. Some prominent leaders have lobbied hard for independence by 2021, the 300th anniversary of Greenland’s colonization by Denmark. Nuuk’s reliance on critical Danish subsidies and the downturn in global oil prices have essentially quashed these notions for the immediate future, however. The population of just 57,000 will nonetheless have an increasingly stronger voice on the use of vast mineral resources on the world’s largest island, also being transformed rapidly by climate change.