It should not be a surprise to anyone that the Arctic is melting. After all, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006, traumatizing me at eight years old. Subsequent Earth-centered documentaries have repeatedly shown polar bears trapped on shrinking icebergs, or alternatively entire cliffs of ice falling into the ocean due to rising temperatures. Greta Thunberg has openly spoken about the environmental damages that humans are creating on their planet, and she is only one of many activists who have drawn attention to the serious issues we face.

And yet, here we are. Inching toward devastation without much, if any, progress in the years since. 

In 2020, our summer ranked as the fourth hottest summer and may beat out 2016 as the warmest year on record. Our environment continues to struggle. The Australian bushfires that began in 2019 continued well into March 2020, burning through 13 million acres and killing approximately 470 either directly or through smoke inhalation. More than four million acres of California were burned in wildfires, double the record in 2018 and resulting in red skies. Rising sea levels have led to flash floods and the destruction of coastal land. Speaking of that, more than 150 were killed by flash floods in Afghanistan.

And in the Arctic, this past year, 40 percent of the Milne Ice Shelf fell into the ocean, ending Canada’s last fully-intact ice shelf. In fact, it’s expected that the Arctic might become ice-free entirely in the next few decades if we continue on at this rate. The melting ice affects not only the rise in sea-levels but also the planet’s temperature; therefore having a role in the disasters listed. Keeping in mind the ongoing pandemic, there are diseases that have been kept frozen underneath the permafrost near the Arctic Circle. As the ice melts, the diseases come to the surface. 

You’d think, given the innocuous rally of saving the environment and the Arctic, people would be up in arms working toward that solution. But make no mistake, the Arctic isn’t just environmental—it’s political as well. 

There are eight nations with claim to the Arctic: the US, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden. Together they form the Arctic Council, a loose intergovernmental organization that creates policy for the region and incorporates the different indigenous groups, who often struggled to get their voices heard. For some of these countries, the melting Arctic has opened up new oil and gas reserves. 

Greenland, which is the property of Denmark, has had its vanishing ice sheet passed the point of no return, but in turn has opened up new reserves of uranium, zinc, gold, iron, and other rare elements.

Russia is also continuing to expand the development of the Northern Sea Route, which would open up more as the ice melts and allow for faster commercial shipping. China— although not a nation with a claim to the Arctic—has been investing in the Northern Sea Route, investing in $9.5 billion through its Belt and Road Initiative. China has long been heavily invested in the Arctic, claiming it as “the inherited wealth of all humankind,” and financing the development of mines and oil companies in Canada and Greenland.

In the US, President Trump has continued to push for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a public space in Alaska that is also home to the native Gwich’in people. The land’s drilling rights are expected to be auctioned off on January 6, two weeks before the next presidential administration, despite the majority of US voters saying they oppose this plan. 

Between the US and Canada, there has also been an ongoing dispute over the Northwest Passage. As the ice caps have been melting, it’s become a valuable space for commercial shipping. Canada and Denmark have their own dispute over Hans Island for decades, which under the melting Arctic has become more important. 

This is only the tip of the iceberg around the politics and the shrinking Arctic. These issues will continue to be a growing power-struggle for these countries, not despite but rather because of the melting region.

In the end, if we go back to the question of why we haven’t worked harder to stop the destruction of the environment, the answer lies in the shipping routes, resources underneath the ice, and the profit opportunities that these countries see in the melting ice. 


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  • Helena Ong

    Helena Ong is a freelance writer and journalist from San Francisco, California. In the past, she's worked at San Francisco Public Press, World Policy Journal, and NBC4 Los Angeles. She graduated from Pomona College, where she served as Production Editor for her college newspaper, The Student Life.