The Arctic Ocean: A Gold Rush with No Sheriff in Town

In the past few days, I have seen new coverage of the oil and gas boom that is about to hit the Arctic Ocean now that global warming is melting its seas. Just two weeks ago, while I sailed through the Arctic Ocean aboard the ship National Geographic Endeavor, I saw for myself the remarkably long shadow oil exploitation can cast in the frozen North.

Our journey took us through the Svalbard archipelago in the high Norwegian Arctic. It was remote and forbidding landscape, with its few signs of life stretched between expanses of ice. But along island shores, we began to notice a common and recurring scene: mounds of whalebones.

Back in the 17th century, Svalbard attracted fleets of Dutch and British whalers. They captured so many bowhead whales that they brought the species to the edge of extinction. Why? Because of Europe’s voracious appetite for oil.

In the Arctic’s frozen climate, things do not disintegrate quickly. So on the beach, we were looking at the remnants of a 400-year old oil addiction.

I was aboard the ship as part of an expedition hosted by the Aspen Institute to examine the impacts of global warming, but also to convene the institute’s Arctic Commission—a group established to help create a conservation and governance structure for the region. Seeing those whalebones brought home to me just how critical it is for us to be wise stewards of the Arctic in the face of this century’s version of hungry whalers.

Where Once There Was Ice, Now a Gold Rush

As a result of global warming, some 28,000 square miles of summer sea ice vanishes in the Arctic each year, taking with it the principle physical barrier to intensive industrial development that protected this remote region for thousands of years.
Now, a pending international rush for oil, gas, fish, and shipping routes is on, and the eight Arctic nations are poised to jump in and take advantage of these new opportunities.

Last week, the New York Times’ Business section reported that the US Geological Survey says the Arctic could hold as much as 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil (click here for Andy Revkin’s comments on this.). This weekend’s Times Magazine had a piece describing the oil, natural gas, zinc, lead, and even gold and diamonds hidden under Greenland’s likely melting seas.

The rush is on, and there is nothing holding it back. There is no management regime for the open water in the Arctic.

How Wise Governance Can Stem the Tide

That’s why the Aspen Institute created its Arctic Commission. We are looking at three issues:

  1. Protecting the living resources, including the fisheries and wildlife
  2. Establishing criteria for industrial activity
  3. Identifying what kind of governance regime will work best

During the course of our week in the Arctic Ocean, the commission met daily, and mapped out a strategy going forward. Learn more about what we want to achieve.