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Battle for the North Pole

 via The Week, 5/12/2006:

The Battle for the North Pole
The melting Arctic ice cap may be bad news for polar bears, but it is prompting a frantic scramble for territory and resources. What's at stake?

How fast is the ice cap melting?
The size of the summer polar ice cap has shrunk 20 percent since 1979, reaching its smallest size last year. With average temperatures in the Arctic rising twice as fast as elsewhere in the world, climate scientists predict the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free by the summer of 2050. In place of the white wilderness that killed explorers and defeated navigators for centuries, the world would have a blue North Pole and a seasonally open sea nearly five times the size of the Mediterranean. Last August, a Russian vessel, the Akademik Fyodorov, became the first ship to reach the North Pole without having to use an icebreaker.

Who stands to lose from all this?
The melting of the ice could shut down the Gulf Stream and wreak havoc with the world’s coasts and climate. It would spell potential disaster for traditional Arctic communities, for ecosystems, and for plant and animal species—polar bears would drown or starve, and the species could become extinct. But fish would prosper. Warming Arctic waters are already creating new fishing grounds as fish migrate and adapt to new conditions. Pink salmon have been seen spawning in rivers far to the north of their traditional territory.

Who stands to gain?
The melting ice cap represents a colossal commercial opportunity. Russian icebreakers are already preparing to take tourists to the Pole for $30,000 each this summer, and the thaw could open up some highly lucrative shipping routes. A northeast sea route, north of Siberia, would allow shipping to sail from Europe to northeast Asia, cutting the journey by a third; and the fabled Northwest Passage through Canada's Arctic archipelago could be open to shipping in a few decades, cutting the journey from Europe to East Asia (now routed through the Panama Canal) by 4,000 miles. The greatest profits, however, are likely to be found under the ice.

What is being discovered there?
Oil and natural gas. A quarter of the world's untapped fossil fuels (including 375 billion barrels of oil) are thought to lie under the Arctic, and will become accessible as the ice melts. Industry experts now talk of a "black gold rush," as companies such as BP Amoco, Statoil of Norway, and the Russian giant Gasprom all race to tap already discovered reservoirs in the region. The Arctic, says Moscow-based energy analyst Christopher Weafer, "is the next energy frontier." [read on...]