It’s been pretty quiet on the Arctic front as of late. Tensions between Russia and Canada are lessening, while the Nordic countries are quietly preparing for Copenhagen in December. Sweden took over the presidency of the EU on July 1st and aims to shine the spotlight on the Arctic, even though it is not technically an Arctic state. Sweden will also take over the Barents-Euro Arctic Council in October 2009, allowing the country even more opportunities to bring the EU 27’s attention to the Arctic. Sweden is naturally interested in both climate change and multilateralism, so the Arctic is highly relevant to its diplomatic efforts. Swedish Foreign Minister Karl Bildt mentioned that if Iceland were to join the EU, then “it could over time perhaps give the EU a more direct role in the Arctic than we have today.” In the meantime, Denmark is the only one of the five Arctic states which is in the EU.
All of these foreign policy debates are unravelling against a backdrop of melting ice. The environment and geography of the Arctic are, after all, at the heart of diplomatic scuffles. So when there is more news that the ice is melting, shipping companies after the legendary Northwest Passage rejoice, while countries scramble to find out how they can exact duties and levy taxes.
The biggest news at the end of last week came from a joint NASA-University of Washington study, which revealed that the Arctic ice cap has thinned a large amount since 2004. While on the face of it, the news doesn’t really appear to offer any revelations – after all, a recent headline at the New York Times read, “Thin Ice the Norm in Warming Arctic” – the methods used to study the Arctic were quite revolutionary. NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) measured the volume and thickness of the northerly ice cap over the course of a year, developing the first basin-wide survey.
Andrew C. Revkin, who runs the blog DotEarth on the New York Times website and who has covered the Arctic for many years now, posted a nice explanation of what the new study results mean. He clarifies the differences between thickness and volume, flushing out versus melting in place, and many other ice-related terms.
So, it’s been a slow summer at the North Pole so far. But the ice is melting fast.