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The reconquest of the Arctic


The main difference between the cold polar regions of the south and the north of the world is sovereignty . The first, Antarctica, does not belong to any country .

The territorial claims of some states were frozen in 1961 with the entry into force of the Antarctic Treaty, which enshrined the southern polar continent as a territory used exclusively for peaceful purposes and which gives freedom to nations to carry out scientific research . On the other hand, the Arctic region, basically composed of a frozen sea – the Arctic Ocean – with no land underneath, except for some islands and the coastal areas of several countries, does have owners. This inhospitable area that extends around the north pole to the polar circle line includes territories of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark (which controls the autonomous region of Greenland) and Iceland.

This sea, traditionally covered by a gigantic mass of ice known as the pack ice , may be the epicenter of a new geopolitical scenario. The increase in temperatures due to global warming has made its two main routes passable for more and more periods of time: the Northern Route (or Northeast Passage) and the Northwest Passage . The first connects the Atlantic with the Pacific bordering the northern coasts of Russia. The Northwest Passage connects the two oceans through North America, coasting the polar regions of Canada and the United States, that is, between the Davis and Bering Straits. “In some recent years – 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015 – the two routes have opened simultaneously,” says Nathanael Melia, a meteorologist at the University of Reading (UK).

In an investigation published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters , Melia and her colleagues state that by 2050, in a scenario of greenhouse gas emissions that achieves the objectives of the Paris Agreement – which limits the increase in temperature below the 2 ºC–, the number of navigable days will be more than double on average than at the beginning of the century.

If we fail to meet the Paris targets and live in a high emissions scenario, the number of navigable days will be 3.5 times higher. “Even if the Paris targets are met, there will be substantial melting of the Arctic sea ice,” warns Melia. According to their study, both the Northeast Route and the Northwest Passage will be navigable for two months in most years and four months in warmer years .

A third route, the Transpolar, which crosses the ocean through the center, from the Barents Sea to Iceland, would only be operational once a decade.


Other more pessimistic research estimates that by the end of the century, in a scenario with a very high level of emissions, the Northeast Route could be viable for more than six months of the year . “For now, if we can limit the global temperature rise to 2 ° C, the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in summer.

If we reduce warming to 1.5 ° C, we could keep a little more ice around it, ”says Julienne Stroeve, a researcher at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (USA). When scientists speak of an “ice-free” Arctic, they do not mean it in the literal sense of the term; they mean that the ocean will have less than a million square kilometers frozen during that period .

Experts recall that the two main shipping lanes also lost ice in the past, but not as frequently today. “The fundamental question is the length of the navigable period of time.

In both the east and the west, that has been increasing in the last twenty years ”, declares Leif Toudal Pedersen, researcher at the National Space Institute of Denmark. In his opinion, global warming will continue the trend for decades to come , but the achievements of the Paris Agreement could limit the increase in the number of days the routes will remain operational.

With these forecasts, sea journeys to Asia will be ten days faster through the Arctic by 2050 and thirteen more by the end of the century. For its part, navigations through North America will be four days faster . Additionally, ice-reinforced hull ships will be able to transit the Arctic for 10-12 months by the end of the century. Russia will be one of the countries that will benefit the most from this new geopolitical scenario

“It is going to go from being a continental power to a maritime power, with full access to the sea,” says Gonzalo Escribano, director of the Energy and Climate Change Program at the Elcano Royal Institute of Madrid. The increase in the navigable period on the Northeast Route will allow the Russians to reach Europe, the Atlantic Ocean and also the ports of Asia by sea.

More information in the article The Reconquest of the Arctic , written by Laura Chaparro. You can read it in number 451 of Muy Interesante.

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