The startling reduction in the area of the summertime sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is both a pretty concrete manifestation of the reality of global warming and an indication of how the whole polar region is changing.
The summer ice cover suddenly declined in 2007 and has shrunk by a similar amount each summer since. This means that ice-dependent mammals are in trouble; but it also implies that sea routes through the Arctic may soon be predictably available, that resources are likely to pour into port developments in northern Canada and around the top of Russia, and that the extraction of oil and gas from Arctic fields may get much easier and become more economically attractive. A formerly barren, inhospitable and physically hazardous region is shaping up to be of major commercial and economic significance. This is the heart of the New North.
Laurence Smith's entertaining and well-researched book has two overlapping purposes. The first and more original one is to provide a geographical and political overview of the lands whose relationship with the New North will be transformational. For Smith, the north is the top "quarter" of the globe - everything above 45 degrees North - but particularly the five countries that have claims on the Arctic arising from their ocean shorelines, plus submarinal claims to the continental shelf up towards the Pole. They are Canada, the US (thanks to Alaska), Russia, Norway and Denmark (thanks to Greenland). These five nations plus three others - Sweden and Finland, since they are crossed by the Arctic Circle, and Iceland - make up the new northern rim countries. Smith dubs them the Norcs, a cooler version of the Bric nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), although Russia overlaps the two.
As a geophysicist concerned with the responses of Arctic water, soil and ice to changing climates, Smith has extensive personal and academic knowledge of these regions. He seems to have travelled all over the Arctic world, and here he offers a vivid portrayal of the physical, economic and cultural upheavals the whole Norc region is undergoing. He is as good on the developments in First Peoples' politics as he is on the practicalities of ice roads and natural gas trans-shipment. He documents his accounts very informatively and his footnotes are a treat: comprehensive and thoroughly interdisciplinary.
Rather less original is his second objective: to make an assessment of the likely state of the globe in 2050. He claims that there are four principal factors driving global change: demographic patterns; demands on natural resources; climate change; and processes of globalisation. He aims to give a reasonable and reasoned view of where this might leave us all 40 years from now.
Much of this he does pretty well. For example, his commentary on the scenarios generated by global climate models is extremely clear and authoritative. And his later discussion of factors that have high potential significance but are hard to predict - such as the melting of frozen carbon-rich soils across the Arctic - is both compelling and very precise. But the difficulty is that he can't speak about the whole world as fully and convincingly as he does about the New North. We learn, for example, a little about Nigeria and a tiny bit about Singapore, but not enough about the whole world to justify this part of his project.
The author features himself and his romantic life enough in the text for us to see that Smith started off as a physical scientist who learned through contact with people in his own Arctic circles that economic incentives, governance and demographic patterns will decisively shape the polar future. The environment may be changing at a physical level, but people and governments also determine what the future of the environment will be.
Smith's examination of the New North bears out this critical insight very well. But the attempt to bring in the rest of the world means that the book is less focused than it could have been, and we don't even find out what he believes the global impact of the New North - in particular its vast oil and gas reserves - will be.
The New North: The World in 2050
By Laurence C. Smith
Published 24 March 2011