Published online 12 October 2011 | Nature 478, 172-173 (2011) | doi:10.1038/478172a

News Feature

Redrawing the Arctic map: The new north

Getting to grips with a changing polar landscape.

The Arctic covers around 5% of the planet's surface, but it is capturing a disproportionate amount of attention. With temperatures rising at twice the global rate, the region's summer sea ice is shrinking rapidly, making access easier than ever before. At the same time, countries are racing to claim parts of the Arctic's sea floor and the vast deposits of hydrocarbons that lie beneath it.

Disappearing sea ice

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Since satellite observations started in 1979, the September sea-ice extent has declined by 12% per decade, and the past 5 years have marked the lowest on record. The ice cover is thinning (see graph), making it more vulnerable to warmer temperatures. Forecasts by climate models (see graph) suggest that summer sea ice will largely disappear in the second half of the century, but the current rate of ice loss exceeds the models' forecasts, suggesting that ice-free conditions could arrive sooner.

Shifting borders

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Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries can claim rights to seabed resources in the Arctic Ocean, depending on their coastline and the sea-floor geology. Dark shading on this map represents each nation's existing exclusive economic zone, which extends up to 370 kilometres from its coastline. Lighter shading depicts extended regions to which countries may be eligible. Russia and Norway are the only Arctic nations to have submitted their bids.

Untapped resources

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With its thick piles of sedimentary rock, the Arctic may hold some of Earth's biggest hydrocarbon stores. The high price of oil is driving companies northwards, with drilling taking place or planned off the coast of Greenland and in the Kara, Barents and Chukchi seas. 

See After the ice, Nature's special on the changing face of the Arctic, for more.

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  • #60485

    Russia's claim to the Arctic is absurd and disputed by the USA, Canada and Northern European nations. Greenpeace also never captures equipment or ships, it merely gets in the way and effectively warns whales off. The biggest argument in favor of the US signing the Law of the Sea Treaty is that it would gives the USA undisputable rights in the Artic based on the continental shelf that competes directly with Russia's claim. Right now the desire to do developments in the Artic is not that great anywhere because of high costs and the limited shipping season in Artic waters, but decades from now it is within the range of possibility that war will be fought over artic rights.

    It looks like the USA needs to join Canada's dramatic push to increase the size of its artic ice breaker fleet and patrol ships, which Canada has built up in anticipation of year around passages through artic waters that are currently lightly patrolled.
    Jamie @ website

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