Seattle once prided itself on being the "Gateway to Alaska," but in the coming years we could become the "Gateway to Civilization." Global climate change is producing a rush for control of the far north, and if doomsday scenarios are right, the Arctic may be the place where humans make their last stand in sustainable "polar cities."
A new article in Foreign Affairs makes the case that warming in the Arctic and melting ice will have a profound impact on oil, energy, and claims to land and sea lanes. We already know that the fabled Northwest Passage will shortly no longer be the ice-bound barrier it used to be. But warming will also trigger a more widespread boom in the northern climes: a section of the story is headlined, "Go North, Young Man":
The Arctic has always experienced cooling and warming, but the current melt defies any historical comparison. It is dramatic, abrupt, and directly correlated with industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. In Alaska and western Canada, average winter temperatures have increased by as much as seven degrees Fahrenheit in the past 60 years. ...
The environmental impact of the melting Arctic has been dramatic. Polar bears are becoming an endangered species, fish never before found in the Arctic are migrating to its warming waters, and thawing tundra is being replaced with temperate forests. Greenland is experiencing a farming boom, as once-barren soil now yields broccoli, hay, and potatoes. Less ice also means increased access to Arctic fish, timber, and minerals, such as lead, magnesium, nickel, and zinc — not to mention immense freshwater reserves, which could become increasingly valuable in a warming world. If the Arctic is the barometer by which to measure the earth's health, these symptoms point to a very sick planet indeed.
Industry is viewing the warmed north as the land of opportunity (beyond Greenland broccoli), and the article argues for a much more serious international effort to resolve territorial disputes in the region before countries find themselves fighting over who gets to be Emperor of the North Pole.
Another question: If the ice melts, will people move in? Thinking strictly in terms of space for development (environmental concerns aside), there's plenty of room. Anchorage is on the same latitude as Helsinki and about the size of St. Paul, Minn. It's the largest city in a state twice the size of Texas. There is physical space, and climate change might make the north seem more habitable to more people — especially if conditions down south decline precipitously. That Alaskan "Bridge to Nowhere" might eventually connect with a Big Somewhere someday.
Population pressures will get even worse if the earth's condition radically deteriorates, as some predict. Among the notable doomsayers is British scientist James Lovelock, famed for his Gaia hypothesis, which holds that the planet is a self-regulating entity that maintains an environment friendly to life. He is far more alarmed at the state of global affairs than, say, Al Gore. In his 2006 book The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity, he disdains the term "global warming" and prefers "global heating." He argues we're at or just past the tipping point toward a climate collapse that will turn the lower latitudes into desert over the next few centuries. Mankind, he says, will probably survive, but civilization as we know it might not. At the end of his book, he envisions in B-movie-style the remaining bands of post-collapse humans heading north to what would be the earth's mildest, wettest, and most habitable remaining regions:
[I]n the hot arid world survivors gather for the journey to the new Arctic centres of civilization. I see them in the desert as the dawn breaks and the sun throws its piercing gaze across the horizon at camp. The cool fresh night air lingers for a while and then, like smoke, dissipates as that heat takes charge. Their camel wakes, blinks and slowly rises on its haunches. The few remaining members of the tribe mount. She belches and sets off on the long unbearably hot journey to the next oasis."
Yikes. And that oasis is probably somewhere in France.
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