The opening of the Arctic exposes a pristine landscape to environmental damage through shipping, mining and oil exploration, and threatens to turn the icy waterways into a geopolitical flashpoint.

HAMMERFEST, Norway — One afternoon in Hammerfest, I watched the speck of a plane thread a contrail through the sky.

The twin tracks started at the horizon and stretched straight up. The jet was on a polar route, flying from somewhere in Asia to somewhere in North America across the shortest possible distance.

Ships might someday be able to do the same thing. A ship taking the Northwest Passage from Europe to Asia would cut more than 4,000 miles off the trip through the Panama Canal. They wouldn’t have to go through locks, and ships of all sizes would be able to pass through.

It won’t be long before commercial vessels decide to test the passage's waters and Canada’s claims to sovereignty.

The environment in the high north is particularly fragile. Arctic ecosystems develop on time frames that are nearly geologic in scale.

“In the short term, uncertainties about the weather, the availability of search and rescue, and the movement of multi-year ice will — along with higher insurance premiums — dissuade reputable companies,” wrote Michael Byers, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, in the Toronto Star.

“But less reputable ones might take the risk. There are quite a few rusting-out tankers with Liberian flags and disgruntled creditors sailing on the world’s oceans. International shipping in the Arctic carries with it serious environmental risks. An oil spill would cause catastrophic damage,” Byers wrote.

As the ice melts, the United States and Canada will inherit whole new stretches of coast to monitor.

“The big problem in the north is that our radar systems, our satellite coverage, and our ability to see through the population centers themselves are much less than on the east or west coast,” said Robert Huebert, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

“To a certain degree this whole issue of sovereignty is almost a moot point. The question is, do you actually have the capability of being able to know someone is in your waters, and second of all to do something about it?"

According to former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy, "the hottest part in the world is the cold spot." It was under Axworthy’s watch that the government sold the Port of Churchill to OmniTRAX, and the town had responded by naming the short stretch of road to the port after him.

“There are some degrees of opportunity in climate change, but in a typically human fashion, we’re approaching it with flags flying and gunboats landing,” Axworthy said.

“It’s an absurd situation where you’ve got Russians, Americans, Canadians, Danes all planting flags on undersea shelves and little spits of islands, firing up the frigates," he continued. We’re back in the 19th century. If it wasn’t so serious, you’d have to laugh at these sorts of antediluvian characters who are running these countries.

“You’ve got a Russian regime that’s retreating into extreme nationalism. You’ve got an American that’s been playing the same game. If what you’re doing there is putting more military ships, and more military bases, and sending more rangers, more guys with flags, at what point do they bump into each other?" he said.

“When I was foreign minister, I got a call one night when I was at a street party in my constituency,” he said. “It was from Madeleine Albright.”

A group of fishermen in Prince Rupert Harbour, accusing Americans of fishing in Canadian waters, had surrounded an Alaskan state ferry and were preventing more than 3,000 passengers from leaving.

“She said, ‘If it wasn’t for you, Lloyd, the marines would be coming in,’” Axworthy said. “We kind of laughed. But the reality is that there’s a lot of things up there that you’re not going to be able to control.

“The Arctic for a long time was an interesting area,” he said. “The Russians and Americans played sort of tag under the ice. Is there going to be a nuclear exchange? No. Are we going to be Palestine and Israel? No. Do I predict that you’d have U.S. Marines shooting at Inuit rangers? I couldn’t imagine it.

“But throw Russians into that mix?” he said. “Hmmm, who knows?”

Forecast: The global consequences of climate change

Part 1: Why America Should Care
The Florida Keys are sinking
Can insurance cover the costs of climate change?
Who will be able to afford to live on the coast?

Part 2: The Spread of Disease
Pathogens find new habitats
Countries could backslide into poverty
How disease relates to carbon dioxide

Part 3: The Arctic Melt
Easier passage through the Arctic
A scramble for control of the Arctic
Opening the Arctic to damage

(Stephan Faris is the GlobalPost environment correspondent. His new book is "Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley.")

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