The Arctic Sea—a New Wild West?


Earlier this month the Rhode Island School of Design Museum reopened several newly renovated galleries with great fanfare, offering special tours, a Renaissance choral concert, and the obligatory wine and cheese reception. Among the museum’s American holdings is a large, arresting canvas titled Arctic Sunset (1874) by William Bradford, an explorer and artist from the nearby seaport of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. The polar region captivated Bradford (1823-1892), who saw the hand of the Almighty at work there. In Arctic Sunset, titanic icebergs tower over a faraway and frail-looking—yet apparently intact—sailing vessel. In other works, ships gingerly pick their way around the margins of the ice or through barely navigable channels. Ships come to grief in some of his paintings, finding themselves icebound or aground. Bradford paints a portrait of terrible beauty, at once majestic and unforgiving.

The Arctic basin will become less terrible in the coming decades if climate scientists have it right. Indeed, the periodic retreat of polar ice would bring a new middle sea into being at the roof of the world for part of each year, with all the opportunities and dangers an effective change to world geography portends. As a consequence, managing Arctic affairs will pose a strategic challenge of a high order.

The US Navy chief oceanographer Rear Adm. David W. Titley puts an upbeat spin on matters. The Arctic Sea, declares Titley, ‘is not the Wild West. It is an ocean and we understand how to govern oceans.’ Really? Like the 19th century American West, the Arctic is a largely vacant domain where law and order are tenuous at best. And if recent years have shown anything, it’s precisely that oceans remain theatres for geopolitical competition, not to mention expanses where anarchy reigns—think piracy off Somalia or weapons proliferation in Northeast Asia—unless navies and coast guards preserve order. In a very real sense the seas are a perpetual Wild West. Governing them is a resource- and manpower-intensive chore that never ends. This will be especially true in empty northern reaches. It therefore behoves scholars and officialdom to think ahead about the strategic dynamics likely to prevail there, fashioning arrangements that suppress lawlessness while keeping the peace among Arctic powers.

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To their credit, both scientists and governments have started coming to terms with this emerging reality. By 2030, according to a Scientific American report on a recent US National Academy of Sciences study, ‘ice-free periods during late summer could be long enough to create new sea lanes through the polar region. ’The academy concedes that ‘the timing, degree and consequences of future climate change’ remain uncertain while insisting that changing circumstances ‘call for action by US naval leadership in response.’ Adm. Titley estimates that ‘sometime between 2035 and 2040 there is a pretty good chance that the Arctic Ocean will be essentially ice-free for about a month’ each year. For the United States, a partly ice-free Arctic Sea means policing over 1,000 miles of northern coastline and, potentially, several hundred thousand square miles of ocean. (How Washington will negotiate the boundaries of an Arctic exclusive economic zone while remaining outside the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea remains to be seen.)

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