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Changes in the Arctic

Arctic Council.

What are the political and physical challenges and opportunities facing the region in terms of marine transportation, resource exploitation, environmental health and safety, and indigenous populations? Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress, authored by Congressional Research Service staff, provides a comprehensive overview of Arctic issues and U.S. Arctic policy.

The diminishment of Arctic ice due to climate change could lead to increased commercial shipping; exploration of oil, gas, and minerals; and associated oil pollution risks. These activities, along with the direct effects of climate change, impact threatened and endangered species and Arctic residents.

Arctic CircleClick image to enlarge.
Source: U.S. Arctic Research Commission


Climate Change

2007 and 2012 saw record low areas of Arctic sea ice. Several scientists have projected that the Arctic will be ice-free in most late summers as early as 2030. The Arctic’s physical changes are not limited to the region – linkages between warming Arctic conditions and extreme events in the mid-altitude continents are becoming evident. Increasingly ice-free Arctic summers may also result in expanded fishing and tourism.


Commercial Shipping

Opening Arctic waters raises the possibility of cutting down shipping routes by several thousands of miles and by several days between major trading blocs. The two trans-Arctic routes that may open up are the Northwest Passage, which runs through the Canadian Arctic Islands, and the Northern Sea Route, which runs along Russia’s northern border. Arctic shipping, however, will remain unpredictable even with more open water, which can pose safety issues for ships. The region also experiences adverse weather and lacks basic navigation infrastructure for trans-Arctic shipping.


Oil, Gas, & Mineral Exploration

Decreasing summer ice will also open up the region for more oil and gas exploration, and shrinking glaciers onshore could expose land that contains deposits of gold, iron ore, or other minerals. Interest in surveying and mapping the continental margins of countries with Arctic lands has intensified to support national claims to lands that may contain large amounts of valuable natural resources. However, new oil and gas deposits cannot be developed until infrastructure is built to extract and transport petroleum. The USGS released a report on developing Arctic oil and gas resources, concluding that there is a need for more refined regional understanding of climate change to inform development scenarios, better oil-spill risk assessment and preparation, and increased collaboration with Native communities and international stakeholders on science issues. Concerns about the environmental safety of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic were exacerbated by Shell’s challenges during the 2012 season.


Oil Pollution and Pollution Response

One of the principal concerns of increased activity in the Arctic is the risk of oil pollution due to tanker spills and well blowouts from offshore extraction operations. The impacts of an Arctic spill would likely be severe for the region’s species and ecosystems. The consequences of oil spills in an Arctic environment are not well understood, but the effects in high latitude, cold ocean environments may last longer and cause greater damage than expected. The Arctic also poses special challenges to response and cleanup. The lack of infrastructure, inadequate ocean and weather information, and technological communications problems could all hinder effective spill response.


Protected Species

The effects of climate change and development in the Arctic will impact threatened and endangered species. Both polar bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and walruses are heavily dependent on thick sea ice, making them particularly vulnerable because of the shrinking Arctic ice cap. The extreme pace of climate change in the region makes a biological response to changing physical and biological conditions much more difficult. Arctic species in particular cannot move northwards in response to climate, as the Arctic Ocean is literally the “end of the line” for species migrating in response to warmer temperatures. Beyond the physical impacts of climate change, increased human activities and the associated risks pose additional challenges for Arctic wildlife.


Indigenous Arctic Residents

Seven of the eight Arctic nations are home to indigenous peoples. Arctic climate change is affecting the economies, population, subsistence, health, infrastructure, societies, and cultures of indigenous peoples. Physical changes, as well as increased human activity, will affect the distribution of species significant to the subsistence and cultural activities of indigenous groups. Sea, shoreline ice, and permafrost changes have also damaged infrastructure and increased coastal and inland erosion, making coastal villages more susceptible to flooding and erosion. However, the potential for increased commercial activity may offer opportunities for all Arctic residents, including indigenous peoples.


In addition to the topics discussed above, the report discusses U.S. Arctic research, major U.S. policy documents relating to the Arctic, U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the U.N Convention on Law of the Sea, territorial claims and sovereignty issues, fisheries, polar icebreaking, search and rescue, the geopolitical environment, and U.S. military forces and operations in the region.


RNRF held a Washington Round Table on Public Policy on June 23, 2015 with Sydney Kaufman, Foreign Affairs Officer for the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Energy Resources. She discussed the governance and priorities of the Arctic Council and implications for energy development in the region. For more information on RNRF’s activities, visit


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