As the planet warms, the Arctic is warming more than twice as fast. As ice cover is disappearing, average summer sea ice has declined by more than a third since 1979. That’s roughly equal to the entire area of the Western U.S.
This means more than rising sea levels and troubled polar bears. It is also shifting global trade routes and altering the balance of power between countries surrounding the Arctic. KQED's Brian Watt spoke about this with Fran Ulmer, chair of the United States Arctic Research Commission and a visiting professor at Stanford University.
Watt: You have been to the North Pole in the summertime, last summer, I understand. Am I correct?
Ulmer: Summer of 2017, I went to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear icebreaker, and the day we got to the North Pole, it rained, which was stunning to me, and also to the captain of the icebreaker, who had not seen that before. It was another reminder of how rapidly things are changing in the north.
Watt: What have you heard about the weather this winter?
Ulmer: This winter has been completely crazy, completely outside the bounds of what has been experienced before. Unfortunately, it has been extraordinarily warm, and we've lost a lot of sea ice, so on average, the temperature around the north over the last couple of weeks has been about 36 degrees above normal.
Watt: For people who live here in Northern California, how is this affecting them?
Ulmer: Sea level rise is important to the Bay Area, and you're already experiencing both sea level rise and subsidence. You are in one of those vulnerable zones, where the amount of sea level rise you get is going to have a big impact on people, and on infrastructure.
Watt: Russia is a lot closer to this than we are. Why is this so important to Russia?
Ulmer: About 80 percent of all of the oil and gas resources that Russia has is in the Arctic, so it's important for them to be able to develop those resources, and get them to market. Russia has been promoting the northern sea route, which is the stretch of ocean about the northern coast of Russia, as kind of the new Suez Canal. It's shorter as an alternative for the future. So, the Russian interests . . . national security, oil and gas, potential economic development associated with the shipping and, I would say, positioning itself as a global power.
Watt: Does this worry the United States?