The Next Silk Route

Seeing this map of the melting Arctic Sea and subsequent shipping routes in the Economist a few weeks ago startled me.  I was programmed to think of voyages and conquests by the Economist’s cover picture of a ruddy Viking. And this triggered, at least for me, a profound reality: Everything we know about shipping is about to change because of climate change.

Just hearing that certainty alone sends an Arctic chill down my spine.  I’m not ready to give up that icy white at the top of my son’s globe. Or all the mystery, epoch history, science and beauty locked up there simply to buy get cheaper toys, clothes, solar panel parts, fish protein, energy and the list goes on and on.

But ready or not, the draft National Climate Assessment suggests we already are registering a decrease in sea ice, snow cover and glaciers, as well as an increase in ocean temperatures. Indeed, reflecting the physics of glaciers, they are retreating faster than most models originally had predicted.

So the climate has created an opportunity for this era’s Genghis Khan to open up trade routes that were a mere child’s dream of racing boats across a plastic globe only a few years ago.  I’m heartened to see that a multinational collaboration is taking the lead.  The Arctic Council comprises adjacent countries: the United States, Canada, Denmark (representing Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden.  Corporations are chomping at the bit for the new shipping, fishing and extractives possibilities and a responsible policy will help to ensure safe handling.

Time has given the Vikings and Genghis Khan a romantic and heroic reputation as adventurers. Let’s hope the heroism of this new era of profound geologic change leads to two developments: the halt of other climate events through employing greenhouse gas mitigation and a careful and considerate approach to the use of our new geographical landscape.