Climate change is warming the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of our planet. As a result, the Arctic Ocean’s highly reflective sea ice cover is decreasing quickly.
In winter, this ocean is covered completely by ice ranging from 6- to 12-feet thick. During summer months, the ice cover is reduced by half. Because of warming, however, scientists estimate that by 2040 the Arctic Ocean will be ice free in the mid-summer months. The ice loss rate has been estimated at 3 percent per decade, but this may be too conservative. In recent years the rate seems to be increasing. These numbers apply to the ocean’s surface, but a more troubling number is loss of ice volume (mass). Research has found that over the past four decades the thickness of the polar ice has been reduced by 65-85 percent.
Bordered by five nations, the Arctic Ocean is the smallest, shallowest, and least known of our planet’s five oceans. Despite being the smallest ocean, its surface area is one and a half times that of the continental United States. It is 17,900 feet at its deepest, although its average depth is just 3,400 feet. (World ocean average is 12,100 feet.) It is the least saline ocean because of ice melt, rivers that flow into it, and small losses of water by evaporation.
This ocean contains nearly 22 percent of the world’s continental shelves. At the height of the last ice age 22,000 years ago, huge volumes of seawater were converted to ice that covered many land areas. As a result, sea level was about 460 feet lower than today. As the ice gradually melted, wave action of the rising waters pushed back shorelines forming relatively flat submarine shelves.
During continental shelf formation these shallow coastal areas received massive streams of organic and inorganic materials as runoff. This was the basis for the formation of huge seafloor hydrocarbon deposits, and added massive amounts of nutrients to support sea life. It is estimated that 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbons are in the Arctic Ocean. It also hosts more fish species than any other ocean.
From hydrocarbons to fishery stocks and new sea routes, a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean could offer vast new opportunities. Russia is blessed with the world’s largest continental shelf, having a maximum width of more than 1,000 miles and an area of nearly 1.5 million square miles.
The Arctic Ocean’s ice cover has made it difficult to assess and exploit its resources. Explorers and scientists have been working in the Arctic since the late 19th century but knowledge of this ocean has been hard won. Today, aircraft, satellites, fixed bases on the ice, and military submarines help collect data. The research ship, however, is the most productive platform, even though working in an ice-covered sea is difficult.
In August 2007, two Russian Mir manned submersibles dove 14,000 feet to the seafloor at the geographic North Pole and planted the Russian flag. Publicity surrounding this event, mostly in the Russian media, was somewhat breathless and implied this gave Russia vast added territorial rights. Legal experts did not take the claim seriously. But governments of the four other nations bordering the Arctic Ocean did take note, leading to decrees, promises of increased activity, and some new investments—though fewer than four million people live above the Arctic Circle.
Will the Russians eventually have rights to an extended continental shelf? Possibly. Denmark (Greenland), Norway, and Canada have made similar claims, but such claims cannot be made unilaterally. Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea Treaty, an international commission will rule on seafloor claims made by all coastal nations to extend their continental shelves. While this might be politically significant, the deeper waters of the Arctic Ocean have little value in terms of resources. Accessible riches reside on the shelves.
There are really two Arctic Oceans: the political one of competing territorial claims, and the economic one with great potential resources. “Potential” is the key word. It will be some time before this wealth can be economically exploited. In the meantime, the political Arctic Ocean will continue to have vibrant activity.
Don Walsh, a marine consultant, is a retired naval officer and oceanographer. During his naval career he served at sea in submarines and ashore in ocean-related research-and-development assignments.