The Battle for the North Pole Melting Ice Brings Competition for Resources

Climate change is freeing the Arctic of ice -- and spurring a global competition for the natural resources stored beneath. Countries that border the sea are staking new territorial claims and oil giants are dispatching geologists. But what will the tug-of-war mean for the indigenous people and wildlife?


Bo Madsen, a climate researcher, is plagued by a simple question: How heavy is the world's largest island? More importantly, Madsen wants to know how quickly its weight is changing.

"This is no academic question," the Dane, a scientist at the National Space Institute and the Technical University of Denmark, yells over the whipping of the rotor blades. "The answer will determine the fate of millions of people."

Greenland's majestic landscape glides by beneath the helicopter. A mottled gray-and-white glacier tongue winds its way down a series of mountain slopes. Farther up, the jagged terrain gives way to a smooth, seemingly endless expanse of white, capped by a glistening aura that makes it difficult to distinguish between the sky and the surface of the ice cap.

The scientists have spent the last two hours flying over the edge of the inland ice in their Super Puma helicopter. The gigantic ice cap is close to three kilometers (1.86 miles) thick. If it were to melt, sea levels worldwide would rise by seven meters (23 feet), spelling the end for many coastal cities.

"Did we load the cordless screwdriver?" the 53-year-old Madsen asks his partner, American scientist Eric Kendrick. There is tension in the air, almost as heavy as the metallic chirping of the chopper's drive shafts.

How does one measure the recession of an ice cap? A lone mountain peak protrudes from the glacier ice. This is where the Danish and American geophysicists plan to set up their measuring equipment. Their project, called GNET, will be part of a formidable scientific observation network, an early warning system of measuring stations and satellites designed to monitor the Greenland ice cap.

"The stations measure the height of the mountain tops once every 30 seconds," Madsen explains, "down to the nearest half a millimeter." This precision is made possible by the radio signals emitted by GPS navigation satellites orbiting the earth. The data give the scientists an indirect gauge of how fast the ice is melting, because rising land means, simply, that the weight of the ice resting on it is decreasing.

The researchers have already installed two dozen of these stations all over Greenland, and they have been transmitting data for the past year. According to initial calculations, Greenland has lost 150 billion tons of ice a year in the last four years. This is five times the size of the Aletsch Glacier, the largest glacier in the Alps.

GNET will provide certainty, for the first time, on one of the most important questions of global warming: How quickly is the Greenland ice cap melting? Will it take hundreds of years? Or is the ice melting faster than that? "Soon we will be able to tell mankind by how much sea levels will actually rise in the next 100 years."

Climate researchers like Madsen are the chroniclers of an unprecedented change. The amplified greenhouse effect caused by the burning of fossil fuels heats the earth's atmosphere, and nowhere else in the world do the consequences become noticeable as quickly as in the still-frosty Arctic regions.

Temperatures along the icy shores of the northern Arctic Ocean are rising twice as fast as in the more southerly latitudes. Computer models predict a rise in temperatures there by up to eight degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. "We are on the front lines of climate change," says Madsen. While global warming is still a problem of the future in many places, the big thaw at the North Pole has been underway for some time. Since the mid-1970s, the white crust of sea ice covering the North Pole in the summer months has shrunk by about half, from eight million to four million square kilometers (3.1 million to 1.55 million square miles). This has exposed an expanse of water more than 10 times the size of Germany, or somewhat larger than India.

Graphic: Arctic Melt

Graphic: Arctic Melt

Satellite images reveal that this is another record year. The Northwest Passage has been ice-free since early August for the second year in a row. And there is practically no pack ice left in the Northeast Passage, north of the Siberian coast. This is unprecedented in recent history.

Temperatures are rising in the North Atlantic, and the permafrost soil in Siberia, Canada and Alaska is softening. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Arctic is subject to "stronger and faster warming than any other region."

Arctic animal and plant species must adjust to far more extreme changes than elsewhere -- or face the threat of extinction. It is not surprising that the polar bear has become a symbol of climate change.

People also live in the Arctic region. The Inuit are the ancestral settlers of the north. They number about 100,000 and are scattered across Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Siberia. Their familiar habitat is sinking as the permafrost soil softens.

Some stand to benefit from the end of the ice era. As if awakening from a deep sleep, the five nations bordering the Arctic -- the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark -- are already grasping for new riches:

  • As the wheat farming zone shifts farther to the north in Siberia, the Russians are looking forward to rich harvests.

  • Farmers in Greenland recently began growing potatoes and broccoli, making the territory less dependant on shipments from the south.

  • US aluminum producer Alcoa plans to build a huge aluminum smelter near Greenland's capital city, Nuuk. Hydroelectric power from melting glaciers will provide the electricity for the plant.

  • As the ice melts, previously impassable shipping routes become navigable. Large amounts of money and effort are already being poured into expanding ports like Murmansk, Churchill and Hammerfest.

  • Most of all, the Arctic is releasing unimagined amounts of resources, especially oil and gas, but also various ores.


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