This article was not written in Kodiak. This January, I have travelled far to the West and North to Tromso, the fifth largest town in Norway, to attend a conference called “Arctic Frontiers.”
Upon arrival, we were greeted by subzero temperatures and a sparse but existent snow cover.
It was the week of the sun’s return, and after months of semi-darkness the sun appeared for a few minutes as a large red ball between the distant peaks of two mountains. The local people ventured into snow-covered parks and streets to cheer and greet the sun and round, jelly-filled donuts called “sol boller” were served at snack time to celebrate the day.
Here in the far north, scientists, politicians and businessmen and women from many nations gathered to discuss the future of the Arctic Ocean.There were three concurrent sessions. One had to choose whether to listen to data collections and models predicting changes in temperatures and ice cover in the Arctic Ocean, to talks about future oil and gas development in the Arctic, or to the experts on Arctic ecology. The latter section was titled “Winners and loosers in a changing environment”.
We learned that most models predict that the Arctic ice caps will be gone between 2040 and 2060. We also heard that in the unlikely event that all of humanity suddenly stops burning fossil fuels and no more carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere from human made sources, it is likely that the ice cap in the Arctic will restore over time. However, listening to the developments of world populations and estimated future energy needs did not make this sound like a likely scenario. In fact, the idea that humanity could leave the oil and gas reserves under the Arctic Ocean in place and not burn them evaporated like a whisper in the noise of excitement over the new riches to be extracted from icy oil fields.
Approximately 25 to 30 percent of the world’s oil reserves are expected to be in oil fields under the Arctic Ocean. Norway, Russia, and the United States are the leading Arctic Nations to discuss oil developments, but a strong presence from China underlined the Chinese interests in the prospects of new energy sources. However, participation from Russia at the conference was sparse this year compared to previous years and this was due to the sanctions imposed upon the country after what happened in the Ukraine.
Many maps were projected that showed colorful lines drawn all over the Arctic landscape to assign pieces of the pie to the eight Arctic nations; Russia, Norway, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, the United States, Finland and Iceland. While in the political arena there are some areas with ongoing border disputes, international cooperation is the goal of the Arctic Council, which is a body of the Arctic Nations to coordinate and discuss research and development.
I think the most important insight for me during my week at the Arctic Frontiers conference was that the future of the Arctic is one of huge changes. The world has become larger with the opening of an ocean that has been allowed to slumber under a thick blanket of ice for millions of years and has now been awakened to become a center of human exploration and exploitation.
While it is too complicated for me to determine the winners and loosers in the political game, there were several talks about winners and loosers among the animal populations in the Arctic. From diatoms to copepods, from isopods to polar cod and from harp seals to polar bears and beluga whales, it was discussed who might have population increases and decreases or how the effects of species migration might play out.
One thing became most evident: The question of winners or loosers is one of time scales; Arctic communities are pushed back while species from the North Atlantic are expanding their range into the new frontier.
Changes are certain, whether they are good or bad is a matter of perspective.