Conflict Ahead in Arctic Waters

By David Fairhall

Counterpoint. 220 pp. $26

’Cold Front: Conflict Ahead in Arctic Waters’ by David Fairhall (Counterpoint Press)

On Aug. 27, 2008, a NASA satellite hovering above the North Pole captured images that stunned climate-focused scientists around the world. Both navigable passages linking the eastern and western hemispheres were clear of ice at the same time, a first in recorded history. Based on the rare occurrence, climatologists began making bold predictions about the future of the far north. Some scientists claimed a new northwest passage would be reliably open for ice-free sailing in the summer months as soon as 2013. In David Fairhall’s evocative new book, “Cold Front,” the issue is not whether the polar ice sheet will melt — because in his mind it surely will — but what happens then.

Fairhall covers the history of Arctic exploration from the 1500s to the present day. Several countries, including Canada, the United States and Russia, claim far north territory. In 2007, one zealot went so far as 14,000 feet below the ocean’s surface to plant a Russian flag in the sea floor directly beneath the North Pole.

Fairhall explains that the Arctic is rich in natural resources such as zinc and nickel and is home to about one quarter of the world’s unexploited reserves of oil and natural gas, “an immense strategic prize.” He notes that “political squabbles — if nothing worse — are bound to arise.” While the fortunes of several countries may improve with an ice-free Arctic, the melting polar cap may usher in a new age for the Earth as a whole. Fairhall believes, for example, that massive pockets of methane gas released from the warming Earth could damage the ozone layer and lead to major atmospheric changes.

T. Rees Shapiro