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A balmy day at the North Pole, July 2017. Fran Ulmer
A balmy day at the North Pole, July 2017. (Fran Ulmer)

A "New Ocean" Is Emerging at the Top of the World

A "New Ocean" Is Emerging at the Top of the World

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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.

A gif showing shriking Arctic sea ice from 1979 to 2017.

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?

A woman stands next to a sign reading 'North Pole'.
Fran Ulmer visiting the North Pole in July 2017. (Fran Ulmer)

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.

It also has a big impact on the extent to which our global weather is changing. As the Arctic, which kind of serves as an air conditioner for the planet, gets warmer, and warmer, so will the planet. Ice in the Arctic is not just important to polar bears. It’s important to humans, humans who live on the shore, because of sea level rise, and (it also) affects the opportunity for people to use the Arctic.

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?

Ulmer: It worries some people, who look to the vulnerabilities if our relationship deteriorates with Russia. The eight Arctic nations have gotten along pretty well, and the Arctic Council has been the intergovernmental forum that has kept people talking, and focused on things like environmental protection and sustainable development. But as Russia increases its Arctic presence through more icebreakers, more submarines, more military installations, more military exercises, it makes some people nervous. I hope we can maintain a fairly good relationship with Russia in the Arctic, because at least to date, the Arctic has been a zone of peace.

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