As Southern California bakes under the relentless ridges of high pressure responsible for the state’s crippling five-year drought, the chilly Arctic feels like worlds away. Yet what was once considered wasteland of the Far North shows potential to become one of the world’s richest emerging economies if the natural resources in the region are developed.
For hundreds of years, explorers searched in vain for the Northwest Passage – the fabled waterway that would traverse North America, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans at northern latitudes. With the advent of modern technology, adventure-seekers abandoned their search for the apparently non-existent passage by the dawn of the 20th century. Yet much more recently, the Northwest Passage has begun to open up in the Arctic Ocean, due to the melting of the polar ice cap. It’s just one of the wonders of one of the world’s last untapped economic miracles – the vast but increasingly accessible Far North.
Melting Ice and Emerging Treasures
Underneath the ice sheets that have historically hidden the Arctic Ocean lie vast underground troves of oil and natural gas. Vocativ, a technology company that mines the deep Web to reveal content unavailable through a simple Google search, reported in 2014 that these resources are worth an estimated $17.2 trillion, which is larger than the GDP of the United States.
But oil riches are just the tip of the iceberg: Nickel, copper, gold, silver, uranium and even diamonds can be found beneath the icecap.
Understandably, many nations have been laying claim to the Arctic, with the hopes of getting a stake in this 21st-century version of the Gold Rush. Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark all have territorial claims in the region. The United Nations’ Convention of the Law of the Sea serves as the legal document to settle disputes and keep any conflict from turning into a real cold war.
Agriculture in the Far North
Ever wondered why the world’s largest island is called Greenland? The name was applied during the medieval period, when the Vikings settled the northern landmass and parts of eastern Canada. Apparently, the region was relatively warm at the time, making agricultural production possible during the endless days of the northern summer. The arrival of a colder period ended the Viking civilization in the Arctic.
The Arctic has warmed much faster than the rest of the world in recent years, which most scientists attribute to human-caused global warming due to greenhouse emissions. This has prompted an agricultural comeback in the Far North, with Greenland now home to sheep and vegetable farms. While some animals are threatened by the change – such as the polar bear –the domesticated reindeer are enjoying healthier living with the easy availability of herbs.
Greenland, northern Canada and Alaska don’t quite compare with California’s Central Valley or the Great Plains as a crop-producing region today, but that might change soon.
As early as the 1990s, studies found that hundreds of millions of acres in northwest Canada and Alaska could be suitable for farming if climate change continues and agriculture farther south is hard-hit by drought and economic development, forcing farmers northward. The region is also a great fishery, since the relatively unpolluted region is home to some of the world’s cleanest waters.
Tourists first began visiting the southern reaches of the Arctic in the 1800s, when steamships were first developed. Today, eco-tourism is becoming a big business – visitors now outnumber the residents of most communities. Sea, air and heliports have been constructed in many Alaskan, Canadian and Greenland towns.
Arctic recreational cruises seem to have the greatest potential, since marine transport is the most accessible transportation option for the average visitor. Cruise ship visitation more than doubled in a five-year period in the last decade in Greenland, with visitation remaining strong during this decade.
More than 46,000 Alaskan jobs were due to tourism in recent years and the industry contributed $3.9 billion to the state’s economy. Greenland received more than 87,000 overnight guests at local accommodations in 2015, a record.
The key to sustainable tourism solutions is to create memorable visitor experiences without harming the region’s fragile environment and benefiting the lives of the resident population, many of whom suffer from unemployment and poverty.
Mihaylo Up North
Mihaylo students are improving the lives of Arctic peoples while exploring the intriguing region. In 2015, four business students, Aimee Batac ’15, Ricky Cavazos ’15, Reysa Fiory ’16 and Michelle Le ’16, visited Chevak, Alaska, a town of less than 1,000 people, to assist the residents with tax returns as part of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which also provides free tax preparation on-campus.
“We worked really well together and not only learned about the technical Alaskan tax system, but also had opportunity to experience the culture of the Native Alaskans,” says Batac. “During our non-busy hours, they took us around the village to meet the locals and to ice fish.”
For More Information
For more on the economic potential of the Arctic, see the study, Arctic Economies in the 21st Century: The Benefits and Costs of Cold by the D.C.-based Center for Strategic & International Studies.