This NASA handout satellite image shows the minimum concentration of Arctic sea ice in 2005, when the sea ice extent dropped to the lowest level ever recorded.
Ice-cap melting may be bad news for the polar bears in Manitoba, Canada, but it is great news for Pat Broe of Denver. When the ice melts in the Arctic, the polar predators have to search for new hunting grounds or starve -- but Broe doesn't mind. He figures global warming will make him around $100 million a year.
His friends laughed at him when he bought the run-down port in Churchill -- a tiny outpost of a thousand souls on the Hudson Bay. What could he possibly want with a harbor in one of the most deserted places on the planet that's frozen over a big chunk of the year?
Wait and see, said Broe. He only paid a symbolic price of seven dollars -- not a bad price for a port. He knew that time was on his side. Temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere are rising twice as fast as in the southern half. The summers are getting longer and the pack ice is getting thinner. By 2015 the North Pole is expected to be navigable for normal ships six months out of the year. It's then that a golden age will dawn upon Churchill.
Via Arctic waterways, an oil tanker only needs a week to make it from the Russian port city Murmansk on the Barents Sea to the east coast of Canada. That's only half the time it takes from Abu Dhabi on the Persian Gulf to Galveston, Texas. And from Churchill to Chicago on the Hudson Bay Railway, it's not much further than from Texas to the Windy City. Tankers from Venezuela to Japan can even save some 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles) by traveling over the pole.
Of course, with rising ocean temperatures comes an increased danger of icebergs, but at least the Arctic oil fields aren't in a region plagued by political instability. No suicide bombers, no kidnappings, no explosions. What risk there is up north, is nothing big oil companies aren't happy to take on.
The first cargo likely to be transported via the Northwest Passage is Russian oil from Siberia destined for North America. The melting ice will also make it easier to get to oil and natural gas fields that are still blocked by pack ice.
The Arctic is a giant treasure trove for energy multinationals. A quarter of the world's oil and gas reserves are estimated to be hidden underneath its rapidly shrinking ice. At current market values they would be worth $1.5 to $2 trillion. There are even proven oil deposits at the North Pole itself.
No icebreakers needed
The big breakthrough might come even earlier than Pat Broe expects. Last August, the Russian steamer "Akademik Fyodorov" became the first ship to reach the North Pole without the help of an icebreaker. Norway's state-owned energy company Statoil and Russia's Gazprom want to tap the Stockman Field -- with an estimated 3.2 billion cubic meters, the largest natural gas deposit in the world. The gas will be pumped via undersea pipelines to the warm-water ports in Murmansk and Hammerfest in Norway's far north. From there it will be transported onward to energy-hungry Western Europe.
Before the latest oil boom, Murmansk was a dying city, losing 10,000 inhabitants a year. The partial mothballing of Russian northern fleet destroyed the local economy. But the discovery and tapping of new oil and gas fields has given the gray city on the Arctic Circle new hope. The new gas liquefaction plant alone will create thousands of jobs.
The Russian Duma might have ratified the Kyoto treaty on climate change, but only with the disapproval of President Vladimir Putin. Global warming leaves him cold. There's no reason to get excited, he says. If Russia was two or three degrees warmer, parts of Siberia could become blooming landscapes and his citizens wouldn't have to buy such expensive winter coats.
The Norwegian might already be well off, but the northern thaw would also benefit them. In Hammerfest, a 6-billion gas liquefaction facility is already being built to serve the particularly hungry North America energy market. The project is appropriately named Snohvit -- Snow White.
Five Arctic rivals
Five nations are competing for their very own lucrative chunk of the frosty north: Norway, Russia, Denmark, Canada and the United States. The Arctic might be a vast place, but the various rival claims pose plenty of potential for conflict. According to maritime law, the borders of national economic zones are delineated by the continental shelf, however, it's unclear where the shelf ends and the open sea starts.
The normal habitat of polar bears continues to shrink.
The old seafaring dream of the Northwest Passage will also soon be a reality. It will cut the distance between Hamburg and Yokohama nearly in half. Instead of traveling via the Suez Canal, shipping traffic between Europe and the Far East will likely take the polar route off the costal waters of northern Siberia.
The repercussions for Europe's industry could be immense: lower transport costs will only magnify the effects of globalization as cheap goods from Asia flood Western markets. A decade ago, China wanted to build a fleet of icebreakers in order to allow its growing number of cargo ships to take advantage of the shorter route over the Arctic. Now that will no longer be necessary.