SOURCE: National Geographic

DATE: October 25, 2018

SNIP: On a calm, bright morning in August 2007 a pair of Russian submersibles dropped 14,000 feet to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and planted a flag made of titanium at the North Pole. It was a bold move, made with drama in mind, and images broadcast around the world of the Russian tricolor standing on the seabed drew quick condemnation in the West.

“This isn’t the 15th century,” said Peter MacKay, then foreign minister of Canada, on CTV television. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’”

MacKay was technically correct; the Russian stunt held no legal weight. But his rebuke carried a note of petulance, as though he wished the whole thing had been Canada’s idea. Ten years on, MacKay’s reaction is easier to understand. 2007 was, at the time, one of the warmest years on record, and the Arctic summer ice pack—the vast expanse of floating ice that covers the North Pole even through the summer—had shrunk to the lowest levels ever recorded. The frozen polar sea, foil to human ambition for centuries, appeared to be melting, and Russia was staking a symbolic claim on whatever lay beneath the slush.

“The summer of 2007 saw the largest Arctic ice-loss in human history and was not predicted by even the most aggressive climate models,” says Jonathan Markowitz, assistant professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. “This shock led everyone to suddenly understand that the ice was rapidly disappearing and some nations decided to start making moves.”

In the decade since that “shock event,” the Arctic has been transformed by rising temperatures, vanishing ice, and international attention. Countries with Arctic territory—and some nations with no polar borders—have been scrambling for advantage on the Earth’s latest frontier. Entrepreneurs, prospectors, and politicians have all turned north, recognizing that less ice means more access to the region’s rich stores of fish, gas, oil, and other mineral resources.

“Predictions about the Arctic Ocean have been wrong,” says Michael Sfraga, director of the Polar Initiative at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “And now there’s an ocean opening up before us, in real time. This hasn’t happened before.”