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the Thawing of the North Pole

The Arctic, Drop by Drop

AINHOA GOÑI. 24/07/2013 The surface of the Arctic Ocean melts at a growing pace; in fact, it may run out of ice during summers within a maximum period of twenty years

VALENCIA. The surface of the Arctic Ocean melts at a growing pace; in fact, it may run out of ice during summers within a maximum period of twenty years. Despite the huge environmental problem this implies, some governments seem more concerned with obtaining a part of the treasures the seabed harbours, oil being the most precious among them. 
Tens of scientists, ecologists, technocrats and citizens committed to save the environment look northward with concern. This area, which was protagonist in great feats of mankind and incredible stories, becomes increasingly accessible and decreasingly mysterious, as the environs that made it unique start vanishing. The reasons for this melting are manifold, there is not a «single enemy» to battle, the fight has several fronts and the consequences will not be limited to that area either; whatever happens on the Arctic will affect us all.

The Arctic is a fading utopia. This white paradise, which has reached a thawing peak according to this year's data, has its days numbered. This so-called by many experts «frontier of the fight against climate change», is soon to fall in front of many watchful eyes that understand how irreparable consequences could be.

During this summer, thawing data surprised month after month. The Arctic Ocean registered the highest thawing level from 1979, when measurements started. The last images, taken by a United States satellite in September 2012, and interpreted by NASA and the American National Snow and Ice Data Center, confirmed the worst scientists' hypotheses. During that month ice in the Arctic covered 3.41 million square kilometres, over 70,000 less than in 2007, when the last record was set. 

It is not an isolated event. A few weeks ago, we also learned that Pettermann's glacier broke and a 70-kilometres-long iceberg became detached. But those images gradually stopped shocking anyone, they seem routine. According to data argued by climate change experts, in ten or twenty years at best, the Arctic will be completely ice-free during the summer.

«Immediate consequences of ice loss include the disappearance of many species' habitats; an acceleration of Arctic warming due to the albedo increase and the growth in the risk of abrupt changes because of massive amounts of greenhouse emissions.

We have to add to these effects the rise in human pressure on the ecosystem due to an increase on mining activity, extraction of gas and oil, fishing and navigation», details Carlos Duarte, researcher in the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies in Blanes (CSIC). This thawing does not interest everyone evenly, the reason being that, without ice, the Arctic could turn into a «New World» for many countries.


The new territorial struggle is not on the Moon, not even in Mars. The new Cold War is being fought in the north of the globe, far from our glances. The countries who control the northern area and want «a piece of the pie» are the USA, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark, the so-called «Arctic 5». These countries claim different parts of the area with the excuse of historical rights or proximity, but they leave some of their neighbours aside. Three more countries have part of their territory in the Arctic, but they do not enter the struggle for control of the area: Finland, Iceland and Sweden, although part of that territory is considered sub-Arctic.

In this region rules are not at all clear, as opposed to Antarctica, which has an international treaty protecting it from economical and military activity. 1982's United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea opened the possibility that Arctic-bordering countries could claim an economic area beyond the 200 miles (370 kilometres) of their territorial waters. But the conflict remains unresolved.

The Arctic Council, established in the Ottawa Declaration, monitors the region. They are an intergovernmental forum that discusses issues about the governments of Arctic countries and their indigenous folk. Despite the treaty, different countries have taken positions with uneven success and uneven international boast.

The ships navigating the area now do not look for new species or measure the oxygen level of its water. Now, these vessels look for territorial limits and natural resources. Canada, for instance, acted in a direct way to ensure its sovereignty over this forgotten region for years. In fact, it has been patrolling the Arctic with soldiers and keeping track of it with satellites for years.

Russia did not take long to assume positions. In August 2007, to prove that the Arctic was an extension of Lomonosóv Ridge and Mendeléev Ridge and it was, therefore, Russian, an expedition led by Artur Chilingarov set a Russian flag on the sea bottom. This event, apparently symbolic as the American flag on the Moon, seeks to claim 1.2 million kilometres of the Arctic. This piece of news arrived along with another: the historical melting record of the region.

Denmark, which owns Greenland in the Arctic Circle, has already sent geological missions to the area in order to gather data proving that they also deserve a piece of the pie. The United States, on the other hand, have a map of the Arctic sea bottom in their possession. 

Far away is May the 11th 1926, a historical date when Roald Amundsen, Umberto Nobile, Lincoln Ellsworth and other 13 people arrived to the North Pole on the airship Norge. They conquered it in a different way, of course. 

If that great journey has already been made, if that peak has been reached, then why is that piece of ice so important today? It looks like the answer to the region's sovereignty lies under the seabed, just as the riches it conceals.

Full text available at Mètode's website


Ainhoa Goñi. Director of Communication in the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), Madrid.


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