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The Coming Arctic Battles

What with the planet getting toasty and all, the Arctic ice cap has been shriveling at a rapid clip, and the whole ocean could well see ice-free summers by as early as 2013. Scott Borgerson has, for some time, been trying to think through what this would all mean in geopolitical terms, and recently wrote a terrific essay for Foreign Affairs about it.

Say this much: The Arctic melt will certainly have some positive effects. Shipping from, say, Rotterdam to Yokohama through the Northern Sea Route will be much shorter than going all the way around through the Suez Canal. And less ice will allow for better access to fish, timber, minerals, and freshwater in the region (all that newly accessible resource wealth might even give Greenland a reason to declare independence). Plus, exciting new tourism opportunities: "Last year, 140 cruise ships carried 4,000 intrepid travelers for holidays off Greenland's icy coasts, a dangerous journey in unchartered waters."

But then... things get dicey. By most estimates, there's a staggering amount of oil and gas up in the Arctic—Norway's saying one-quarter of the world's remaining deposits; Russia's bragging that it has claims to Arctic oil fields double the size of Saudi Arabia's. That's unsettling if you think the world can't afford to keep burning fossil fuels. And all that oil is likely to cause a heap of fresh conflicts—already we've seen Canada planning new Arctic military bases and Russia planting flags on various seabeds and dusting off old geological surveys to claim access to this or that bit of tectonic plate. (Putin: "The Arctic is ours and we should manifest our presence.") With so much at stake, why wouldn't they fight?

Borgerson suggests that the United States should work to negotiate some sort of international treaty for the region—it's currently  a lawless region, the new wild, wild West—but should move in unilaterally, in the meantime, working with Canada to defend its interests. Yikes. Not to mention there are also about one million indigenous people in the Arctic who, one would hope, would get some say in the future of the region, though it's hard to be optimistic there. One other curious fact: The U.S. Navy, despite its girthy budget, only has one "seaworthy oceangoing icebreaker," compared with 18 for Russia. (And the Coast Guard, I believe, only has a few creaky ones.) Who knows, a decade from now, presidential candidates may be assailing each other over the much-feared "icebreaker gap."

--Bradford Plumer