The Arctic is feeling the most extreme effects of global warming, and it may soon be the focus of a modern rush for resources. As sea ice and permafrost thaw in the Arctic, the region is becoming increasingly accessible for shipping, exploration, and resource extraction. Previously inaccessible precious metals, rare earth elements, fossil fuels, and other resources are being exposed by the thawing of the Arctic.
Here we will explore:
- How the Arctic is changing and how Arctic Amplification accelerates that change
- The central role of the Arctic will take in global politics
- The resources that have been discovered in the Arctic (so far)
- The massive effects of climate change on the people and terrain of the Arctic
The opening of the Arctic frontier could be an answer to global resource shortages, but it also poses a major threat to the environment and creates new potential for political conflict and a mix of danger and opportunity for indigenous people.
Global climate change in the arctic
The effects of global climate change may be at their most dramatic when one looks at the effects of rising temperatures on local animal and plant life. Warming waters are driving fish populations further north. Newly exposed ground and thawing permafrost are leading to the spread of plant life to previously frozen regions.
More complex chemical changes are occurring as well, including the release of bromine into the atmosphere, which triggers ozone depletion and increased mercury accumulation in the region. Almost every facet of the Arctic is being reshaped at incredible speed by climate change.
This is even more alarming because the Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the world due to an effect known as “Arctic Amplification.” This is caused by feedback loops where climate change accelerates processes that in turn accelerate climate change.
For example, sea ice reflects a greater amount of sunlight back into space relative to the open ocean. As a result, when sea ice coverage is reduced by rising temperatures, more sunlight is absorbed by the ocean, and that added energy increases the temperature further.
Another important feedback loop is the release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost. The combined effects of Arctic Amplification and the vital role played by ice and permafrost in the local ecosystem have made the northernmost region of our planet exhibit the most dramatic changes as global temperatures rise.
A region of political boundaries
Russia, Canada, the United States (Alaska), Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland all possess territory within the Arctic and are member states of the Arctic Council. Additionally, other major world powers such as China and the European Union have interests in Arctic trade routes, resource development, and environmental concerns.
The political situation in the Arctic is complex and has a major influence on the exploration and exploitation of new resources.
For example, since a 2008 referendum, Greenland has been moving towards greater autonomy from Denmark. Greenland used this autonomy to lift a ban on mining radioactive minerals and has plans to construct a mine to extract uranium and rare earth metals. The project proposal is controversial.
The mine could ease the global shortage of critical materials and energy and provide a major boost to the local economy. It could also create significant environmental hazards associated with this kind of mining. However it plays out, this is just one example of the kind of crises and opportunities created by the shifting landscape of the Arctic.
With such diverse entities pursuing their own Arctic agendas, the matter of who owns what resources, especially those under the ocean, is a hotly contested political subject. The topic of global warming itself can also be contentious.
Meanwhile, the indigenous cultures of the Arctic region have the dual challenge of coping with climate change as well as the political and material interests of global powers. While the authors of this article acknowledge the political complexities of the region, we will focus on materials-relevant subjects.
Arctic materials: what we know so far
While the Arctic might be one of the least-explored regions left on earth, our best guesses at what resources might be uncovered are based on already-discovered resources in the region.
A 2016 review by the Geological Survey of Norway (NGU) summarized known ore deposits above the 60th parallel, summarized in the following table. Some of these deposits are currently being mined. However, many remain unexploited due to the difficulty and expense of accessing them. Of particular interest are the rare earth elements (REE) and noble metals, which are often vital components of modern electronics and batteries.
Significant uranium deposits have also been found, and some already have plans in place to begin mining in the near future. However, we should note that this table only summarizes known large deposits of different ores. As the ice melts, more deposits will be exposed, and the rush to exploit them may accelerate.
Onshore regions of Russia, Canada, and Alaska contain oil and gas fields accounting for 240 billion barrels of oil and oil-equivalent natural gas, about 10% of the known petroleum reserves worldwide. However, the Arctic is also largely unexplored, and a 2008 USGS survey of the Arctic estimated that as much as 90 billion barrels of oil and significant natural gas reserves are yet to be found. Much of those reserves are offshore and located under permanent sea ice.
However, the regions of sea ice that can be considered “permanent” are shrinking. Recent years have seen new records in the total area of the Arctic covered by sea ice. This already has world-changing implications for trade, as new shipping lanes open through the ice. However, while sea ice coverage continues to decline, oil reserves under the Arctic ocean will also become more accessible than ever before.
Russia is already the world’s foremost producer of diamonds, harvesting most raw diamonds from numerous kimberlite deposits on the edge of the Arctic Circle in Eastern Siberia. The NGU survey describes other diamond-rich kimberlite deposits in Canada in the Slave craton, which is also known for its deposits of gold and rare earth metals.
Some of these Canadian diamond deposits already have active mines. Finland also has known kimberlite deposits. However, many more such sources of diamonds remain undiscovered or inaccessible on the ocean floor or under ice and permafrost, but that is changing as the region thaws.
One of the more unusual and interesting hidden resources of the Arctic is scandium. Samples from the floor of the Arctic Ocean have been discovered with especially rich scandium content, which has shown great promise in high-performance aluminium alloys, such as these available through Matmatch. Scandium, when added to aluminium, improves both the alloy’s strength as well as its weldability.
However, due to its rarity, few other applications of scandium have been tried or developed. The unusually large amount of scandium on the Arctic seafloor may change that supply limitation if it were ever harvested, perhaps as a byproduct of extracting other rare earth elements found alongside it.
History preserved by the cold
The cold of the Arctic does more than just produce ice and permafrost. It also traps, preserves, and conceals historic treasures. The melting of arctic ice recently exposed some long-lost shipwrecks of American whaling vessels, but even older specimens have been found.
The remains of mammoths and other ancient animals are being exposed by the melting ice and discovered in ever-increasing quantities. However, global warming also increases the urgency of finding such specimens quickly. If a find, like this ancient puppy, is exposed by melting ice, it becomes both easier to find and more susceptible to decay.
Some of the most interesting discoveries enabled by the melting ice are much smaller, however. The fossils of ancient microbes found in Greenland are the oldest fossils ever recorded. Roughly 3.7 billion years old, they predate all other life in the fossil record. Who knows what other discoveries might be uncovered as the ice retreats?
Ice, permafrost, and people
Thus far, we have focused on how ice creates difficulty in accessing the Arctic. However, the ice in the arctic is a valuable resource in its own right. While the ice itself (generally) is not a viable material commodity, it still plays an important role in the Arctic climate, terrain, and way of life.
We have already discussed how the loss of both sea ice and permafrost (soil that remains frozen for multiple years) play a role in the feedback loops that accelerate global warming and contribute to “Arctic Amplification.” Sea ice helps cool the region by reflecting solar energy back into space, and permafrost releases greenhouse gases as it thaws. However, the regional effects of losing ice and permafrost are more profound than even these feedback loops suggest.
Flooding, erosion, and sinking land in Siberia is threatening the way of life of native populations, damaging their buildings and the surrounding terrain. Meanwhile, ancient animal remains exposed by the thaw are creating an economy around selling collected mammoth tusks, even though the practice is banned.
The native Inuit people of North America are also under pressure as unpredictable seasons, shifting ice conditions, and animal migrations in response to climate change create new challenges in sustaining their traditional hunting practices. The Arctic is changing in dramatic ways, and while the changes create new opportunities, they also create new struggles for the local people and animal life.
The same factors will affect attempts to extract on-shore resources in the arctic. Permafrost thaws create an increased risk of landslides and danger to roads, pipes, buildings, and other infrastructure for mining and drilling. The thawing of permafrost is driving a large-scale transformation of the landscape of the Arctic from tundra to “thermokarst,” a new kind of terrain composed of lakes, sinkholes, pits, and other features resulting from of soil subsidence and erosion.
Erosion may also have a major effect on the ocean as soil and silt are washed out to sea. Resource extraction itself can also be damaging or disruptive, and one would hope that the economic development of the Arctic would make conscientious choices with respect to both the environment and indigenous peoples.
A particular form of ice, methane hydrate, has the potential to be developed into a new energy resource. Methane hydrate consists of methane molecules trapped in a lattice of solid water, and the United States, Japan, and others are researching methods of extracting the methane as an energy source.
Methane hydrate deposits could be a new source of energy if harvested or a source of additional greenhouse gases if they simply melt. In either case, very large deposits of methane hydrate are believed to lie under the Arctic Ocean.
Whether those deposits become a hot new energy commodity, another factor accelerating global warming, or both remains to be seen.
The arctic future
Few factors have changed the environment or human history more than the pursuit of valuable resources, and the extreme cold, permafrost, and sea ice have shielded the Arctic. But now, as the climate warms, the Arctic is changing more rapidly than any other region.
Even as the Arctic environment and native people struggle to adapt to the changes, valuable resources are becoming more accessible than ever before. The Arctic is changing dramatically, and may soon become the most important frontier in the world.
In this article, we tried to take an unbiased look – explore what we already know about materials in the Arctic region and looks at risks and possibilities of mining materials under the ice. Now it’s your turn. What do you think?