The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, says James Astill. The retreating ice offers access to precious minerals and new sea lanes—but also carries grave dangers
STANDING ON THE Greenland ice cap, it is obvious why restless modern man so reveres wild places. Everywhere you look, ice draws the eye, squeezed and chiselled by a unique coincidence of forces. Gormenghastian ice ridges, silver and lapis blue, ice mounds and other frozen contortions are minutely observable in the clear Arctic air. The great glaciers impose order on the icy sprawl, flowing down to a semi-frozen sea.
The ice cap is still, frozen in perturbation. There is not a breath of wind, no engine’s sound, no bird’s cry, no hubbub at all. Instead of noise, there is its absence. You feel it as a pressure behind the temples and, if you listen hard, as a phantom roar. For generations of frosty-whiskered European explorers, and still today, the ice sheet is synonymous with the power of nature.
The Arctic is one of the world’s least explored and last wild places. Even the names of its seas and rivers are unfamiliar, though many are vast. Siberia’s Yenisey and Lena each carries more water to the sea than the Mississippi or the Nile.
Greenland, the world’s biggest island, is six times the size of Germany. Yet it has a population of just 57,000, mostly Inuit scattered in tiny coastal settlements. In the whole of the Arctic—roughly defined as the Arctic Circle and a narrow margin to the south (see map)—there are barely 4m people, around half of whom live in a few cheerless post-Soviet cities such as Murmansk and Magadan. In most of the rest, including much of Siberia, northern Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland and northern Scandinavia, there is hardly anyone. Yet the region is anything but inviolate.