The Earth looks like a very different place when you are on top of the world. With the North Pole at its heart, the map unfurls towards Canada, Russia, the US and the Nordic nations – a swirl of blues and whites, with places we know in positions we do not recognise. The phrase “Here Be Monsters” may never have actually been scrawled upon a map but it easily comes to mind when faced with the vast cartographic emptiness of the Arctic.
For those of us living far below the High North, the Arctic Circle retains an air of mystery and magic but as the ice caps melt and life at the top of the world begins to change, so too does our understanding. It is no longer merely the land of the Northern Lights, Santa Claus and polar bears, it is also a place of uranium mining, oil drilling and shipping.
Arctic communities, and the nations they form part of, are not the only ones adjusting to the new realities. At the most recent summit of the Arctic Council, China was one of four Asian nations successfully bidding to become official observers. It describes itself as a “near-Arctic” country (which is a little like describing Belgium as an “almost tropical” nation) but its desire to take advantage of the changes in the region cannot be underestimated. China has already signed a bilateral trade agreement with Iceland and as Stockholm-based Elna Nykänen Andersson discovers in our lead story (see page 39), Greenlanders believe it is only a matter of time before Chinese miners are trudging through the snow in Nuuk.
Arctic politicians, in public at least, welcome China’s interest but then Arctic diplomacy has always been warmer than the name suggests. In a joint interview with the Swedish foreign minister and his outgoing Norwegian counterpart, we hear how the Arctic Council can show the rest of the world that delicate diplomacy still works (see page 51).
The most dramatic example of change in the Arctic is the opening up of the Northern Sea Route, a feared and once impassable channel that arcs over the top of Russia and the Nordic nations. The number of ships passing through each year has risen from dozens to hundreds since 2010, increasing the need for a new generation of icebreakers, such as those engineered by Finnish firm Aker in Helsinki (see page 97).
There are other consequences too. Once sleepy, snow-confined towns will have the chance to develop into truly global cities. monocle’s design editor Tom Morris heads to one such place, Svalbard, to meet the builders working out how to construct homes in the cold. A new port in the Norwegian archipelago could make it the Arctic’s most important hub.
While you may never visit the Arctic, the Arctic is coming to you. Its changing climate will have a profound effect on all of us, the new energy possibilities raise questions for all of us, the new technologies created there will lead to changes for all of us. None of this is news to one particular Arctic figure who has been coming down south for rather a long time though. This wouldn’t be a truly Arctic issue unless we met the region’s one and only icon: a certain gentleman dressed in red who is gearing up for his busiest time of year (page 94).
Why the Arctic matters
The potential importance of the Northern Sea Route cannot be overestimated. While the number of ships currently using the route is still minute compared to the Suez Canal, it is rising fast. It’s a more dangerous trip but that journey from Yokohama to Rotterdam just got a lot quicker.
There is a reason China is so interested in the Arctic and it’s not just because of the new shipping route. Minerals and oil, once far beyond the reach of drillers and diggers, suddenly appear to be available as the ice caps melt.
Drilling and excavating brings its own set of problems, particularly in an area already damaged by climate change. The threat of oil tankers colliding with icebergs cannot be ignored; nor can the environmental harm caused by quarries and mines tearing through the sides of mountains.
The Arctic is one of the few remaining places on Earth where indigenous communities are able to maintain their way of life. There are threats but the political consensus – at least in everywhere except Russia – is far more progressive than elsewhere.