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Geopolitics of Sea-Ice Minima

Arctic Governance
Paul Berkman

Sea ice across the Arctic Ocean is disappearing before our eyes, reaching its minimum extent on record in September 2012 (Table 1). While it may seem a bit esoteric to reflect on sea-ice minima across the North Pole, increasing open-water access across the Arctic Ocean has geopolitical implications that are both immediate and global, requiring balanced perspectives among diverse stakeholders to ensure sustainable development in this rapidly changing region. The intent of this essay is to reveal a pathway for building policy and infrastructure options that promote lasting peace and stability in the Arctic Ocean. Historically, boundaries of the Arctic Ocean system have been the sea floor, surrounding land areas, and its permanent sea-ice cap. With inflow and outflow from the North Pacific and North Atlantic oceans, dynamics of this marine system are dramatically influenced by seasonal sunlight. In turn, the timing and intensity of solar radiation are constrained by the tilt of the Earth's axis, which is why the Arctic Circle is at 66.5 degrees North latitude (an unambiguous astronomical boundary to delimit the Arctic Ocean). The resulting oceanography, meteorology, and marine ecosystem of the Arctic Ocean directly impact adjacent human populations, including the indigenous peoples and surrounding coastal states of Norway, Denmark, Canada, United States, Russian Federation, and Iceland as well as noncoastal Arctic states of Sweden and Finland.