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Last frontier: How climate change is shifting realities in the Arctic

Secondary Categories: ArcticFeature

The Arctic is warming three to four times faster than the global average. The environmental consequences are obvious – but climate change is also having a huge impact on things like shipping lanes, geopolitics, and tourism. And that’s before we even factor in the war in Ukraine. Read on for a nuanced overview of the key considerations.

Climate change affects all of us, but melting sea ice and permafrost are changing the Arctic in real time. While very few people deny the impact climate change is having on the region, its consequences elicit a more mixed response. The melting sea ice is opening up new shipping routes, and making existing ones accessible for longer periods. It’s also meant that this icy wonderland is more accessible to tourists than it’s ever been. (With reindeer, polar bears, icebergs, and the Northern Lights, the Arctic is one of the world’s last great tourist frontiers, and we are thrilled to be able to lead sustainable tours there.)

A route to the East?

For centuries, explorers tried to find a viable Arctic route to link Europe and Asia. Back then, the only option was rounding the southern tip of Africa – a serious detour. While icebreakers would eventually manage to transit the Arctic via the Northeast Passage, the many failed attempts proved that the route was not feasible, and in 1869 the Suez Canal was opened. And that, everyone thought, was that.

Not so fast. According to the Arctic Council, “ship traffic in the Arctic has been increasing modestly for the last 20 years.” And in the last five years it’s ramped up considerably: “between 2013 and 2019, the number of ships entering the Arctic grew by 25 percent, from 1,298 ships to 1,628 ships. The total distance sailed by those ships in the Arctic grew by 75 percent from 6.51 million nautical miles in 2013 to 9.5 million nautical miles in 2019.” While the majority (41%) of these ships are commercial fishing vessels, bulk carriers, icebreakers, research vessels, and cruise ships are also spending more and more time in Arctic waters.

Red nuclear ice breaker ship in the Arctic iceberg water heading to the North Pole
Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreaker ship heading towards the North Pole

Increased ship traffic is likely to have a detrimental impact on Arctic wildlife. On the flipside, the fact that cargo ships and tankers won’t have to travel as far could greatly reduce global emissions – provided they are burning the right fuels. Luckily, the efforts of the Clean Arctic Alliance have paid off, and from 2024 HFO-burning ships will be banned from entering the Arctic (there are, however, a few worrying exemptions to the ban).

It’s not just about waterways

Climate change isn’t just opening up new shipping routes in the Arctic. It’s also making what lies beneath the seabed and the permafrost more accessible: Hydrocarbons, and lots of them. Deciding whether or not to exploit these fossil fuels is highly controversial, as the recent brouhaha over Alaska’s Willow Project illustrates. Critics say there’s no excuse for drilling in one of the world’s most pristine and fragile environments – especially because the effects of climate change are so marked in the Arctic.

But advocates of the Willow Project say it will inject much needed cash and jobs into the local economy. Alaska’s Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy, believes canceling the project would be tantamount to shooting ourselves in the foot: “Taking future oil production in Alaska off the map won’t decrease global oil consumption. It will just shift the market and give leverage to producers in countries that don’t have our high standards for the environment and human rights.” Of course, there are many counterarguments to this logic.

Climate activists in Juneau, Alaska, it's a climate emergency, January 2020
Climate activists at the Alaska State Capitol of Juneau. (Photo: Gillfoto, Climate Emergency - ASCB 144, CC BY-SA 4.0)

What about the war in Ukraine?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 added a further layer of complexity. To be clear: the conflict itself is well removed from the Arctic Circle. But of the eight countries with Arctic territory (USA, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden), Russia has by far the largest claim. Russian land makes up 53% of the Arctic coastline – a fact that has not escaped the attention of President Putin and his cronies. Speaking in 2021, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, claimed that his country controls the Arctic. “It has been absolutely clear for everyone for a long time that this is our territory.”

The Arctic saber rattling predates the war by at least a decade. Russia has quietly been beefing up its presence in the area, reopening Soviet-era military bases and sending more ships, submarines, missiles, and planes to the Arctic. In 2018, China (which has no Arctic territory) entered the fray with the publication of a paper that set out in black and white Beijing’s plans to “build a Polar Silk Road in the Arctic region, thereby linking Asia and Europe through logistics and transportation channels.” In the same year, NATO finally woke up to the threat, putting on its biggest Arctic operation in decades: Trident Juncture saw more than 50,000 troops descend on northern Norway.

Nagurskoye Russian airfield military base in the remote Arctic
Nagurskoye airfield is Russia’s northernmost military base established in an extremely remote location of the Arctic. (Photo: Mil.ru, Arkticheskiy trilistnik (2017) 02, CC BY 4.0)

But the war in Ukraine has exacerbated tensions and ushered in what many describe as a “new Cold War”. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Arctic Council temporarily suspended operations (it’s since resumed, without Russian participation), and in March that year NATO went ahead with a long-planned military operation in the Arctic. Later that year, as Reuters reports, “Chinese and Russian warships conducted a joint exercise in the Bering Sea” for the first time.

Thankfully there is very little chance of a full-blown conflict in the Arctic. And, as this excellent article on The Arctic Institute’s website explains, many of our fears about the Arctic are based on misconceptions. But there’s no denying that in the war for control of the Arctic’s shipping lanes and hydrocarbons, Russia has a definite head start. “At the moment, the military balance in the Arctic is heavily weighted towards Russia,” said Colin Wall, research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Can tourism be part of the solution?

At SA Expeditions we can get pretty evangelical about the healing powers of responsible tourism. But even we can admit that tourism is unlikely to have much impact on global politics. What tourism can do, however, is pioneer economies that are based on protecting Arctic resources instead of exploiting them.

By exploring national parks and wildlife reserves, travelers contribute to park fees that support the maintenance, protection, and monitoring of these wild areas. This also helps create new protected spaces. Visiting remote communities brings them much needed income, and helps to preserve disappearing ways of life. What’s more, going on an Arctic cruise, and learning from expert guides and speakers turns tourists into ambassadors, and empowers them to spread awareness about the disappearing Arctic.

The World Wildlife Fund recently published a document entitled Ten Principles for Arctic Tourism – and we are pleased to report that SA Expeditions already follows all ten principles on all of our tours, not just those that traverse the Arctic. As a proud B Corp, we are passionate about using tourism to protect the environment and uplift communities. And all of the cruise companies we work with share our vision.

SA Expeditions Destination Expert Adam Laughter in the Arctic, zodiac spotting icebergs
Scoping the floating icebergs on an Arctic expeditions (Photo: Destination Expert, Adam Laughter)

The Arctic is more accessible than it’s ever been. Instead of bemoaning its impending destruction, be a part of the solution by embarking on the sustainable Arctic adventure of your dreams. Check out some of our most popular Arctic itineraries here; then speak to a Destination Expert about crafting your own.

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