Lawson W. Brigham

A confluence of globalization, climate change, and geopolitics is heralding a new age of Arctic geography. Landscapes and seascapes at the top of the world today are highly dynamic. Most are rapidly changing under the influence of anthropogenic warming, resulting in new perspectives of the Arctic's physical geography that could not have been envisioned only a few decades ago. The extraordinary changes in sea ice coverage are perhaps the most iconic and compelling images of a new and transformed Arctic. New political boundaries are also evolving – witness the 2010 delimitation agreement between Norway and the Russian Federation in the Barents Sea. After four decades of diplomatic efforts, why has a settlement in this shared Arctic space been reached early in the 21st century? There is little doubt this new geographic boundary and strengthened, bi-lateral cooperation are pragmatic political responses to the economic realities at play in the Barents offshore. Furthermore, once remote, Arctic continental shelves (among the broadest on the planet) have seemingly 'overnight' become coveted real estate due to their potential for hydrocarbon wealth and increasing marine accessibility. Developing seabed maps to define the spatial extent of these shelves has become critically important to the national sovereignty of five Arctic Ocean coastal states (who hold the potential for extended seabed claims), as well to a host of investors, insurers, hydrocarbon explorers and offshore developers...many poised to become influential stakeholders in a future Arctic.


I am sure it is confounding to many that something coined UNCLOS – very familiar to all of us who work on ocean affairs, but arcane and obscure to most global citizens – essentially casts a comprehensive 'legal net' over the maritime Arctic and by itself, alters and shapes the political geography of the region. However, UNCLOS serves a useful geographic function as it reaffirms to a global audience the inescapable fact that most of the place we call 'the Arctic' is indeed an ocean. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, is the critical, international (legal) framework from which new maps – and future hydrographic and navigation charts – will emerge. All the current scientific mapping of the central Arctic Ocean will in the future delineate the extended continental shelves (and sea beds) under coastal state jurisdiction around the basin.

During the research conducted for the Arctic Council's Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (2005-2009), or AMSA, we found compelling and key economic connections of the Arctic to the rest of the globe. The development of the Arctic's natural resource wealth was found to be a primary driver of the need for safe and efficient marine transportation systems. With the world's largest zinc and nickel mines located in the Arctic, an emerging high grade iron ore mine to be located on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, and hydrocarbon exploration and development already underway in offshore Russia, Norway, Greenland, and Alaska, we could visualize a new economic geography for the entire circumpolar North. These new economic linkages also influenced the Arctic's political geography as evidenced by Greenland's emergence as a possible future independent state. We also discussed in AMSA other wildcards such as the plausibility of future transport of freshwater out of the Arctic to global users, as well as the changing patterns for fishing vessels that might evolve with transformations of the Arctic's rich marine ecosystems. All of these economic possibilities are most certainly influenced by the changing accessibility of the maritime Arctic with the retreat of Arctic sea ice and the emergence of potential summer trade routes.

There is, perhaps surprisingly, an emerging aspect of human geography associated with indigenous Arctic marine use. Why is this new? Because comprehensive mapping of year-round indigenous marine use is essential for the application of multiple use management and mitigation strategies. I submit that none of these worthy efforts and approaches to marine management (for example, marine spatial planning) will have utility or meet with any chance of success without full knowledge of the spatial and seasonal ocean uses of Arctic indigenous people. Also critical to any future decision-making will be the geographic perspectives provided by the thousands of images of the Arctic natural environment accessed each day by polar orbiting satellites with ever more powerful sensors. Similar snapshot images are also available today for the location of all ships underway in the Arctic – products of satellite and land-based receivers of information provided by shipboard automatic information systems (AIS) that are required by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). These comprehensive geographic or operational 'pictures' of Arctic marine traffic are fundamental to the effective monitoring and potential enforcement of future commercial shipping in the region.

Profound changes are underway in the physical, human, economic and political geography of the Arctic. I suspect many of us would be comfortable expressing that a serious geographic revolution has emerged at the top of the planet. One of the great challenges for the wider Arctic community is to use this wealth of geographic knowledge wisely to better communicate with the global community. In my judgment we will have to be more precise in our language, even with basic Arctic geography, and especially when linking with the global media where some misperceptions about the Arctic arise. We must frame our discourse using a more informed understanding of the vast and complex changes in Arctic geography that we are experiencing. These are certainly potential key roles for bodies such as the Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), as well as a continuing mandate for the academic community.

Lawson W. Brigham is Distinguished Professor of Geography & Arctic Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of the North.

Designed & hosted by Arctic Portal