TROMSO — On the maps we all studied in school, the Arctic appears as a huge white spot separating Asia from the Americas — wild, untouched, impassable. But is that still an accurate representation?

The area is changing, and changing quickly, says Ole Arve Misund, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute. "In 20 or 30 years, probably, there will be no more ice at the North Pole during the summer, and the Arctic Ocean will become accessible," he says.

Misund was one of hundreds of people, including scientists, business leaders, and researchers, who gathered in Tromso, Norway last month for a forum entitled Arctic Frontiers. The conversations centered around the region's rapid transformation, but produced varying reactions.

For researchers, the warning cry is beyond dispute. Global warming in the Arctic is twice as significant as elsewhere. The surface of the ice cap, in September 2017, was 25% thinner than it was in the 1980s. As the waters warm, the plankton population has increased. The tundra is greening. And carbon dioxide gas is being released from formerly frozen soil, speeding up a process with unpredictable consequences.

But from a geopolitical standpoint, the melting ice also opens up new possibilities. This is particularly true for Russia — one of the Arctic Council's eight member countries — which has taken advantage of the climate change to open a northern maritime route connecting Europe to Asia, reducing navigation time by one-third. The cargo volume shipped via this route increased 25% in 2017 for total of approximately 10 million tons. By 2020, that number could reach 40 million, and then 67 million in 2025, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources predicts.

"It is as if we had discovered a new planet, a new ocean," says Tero Vauraste, the Finnish owner of the Arctic Society, which manages a fleet of nine ice-breakers. "Now, during the summer, the Northeast Passage is almost entirely clear. Trading will develop, as well as tourism and scientific expeditions. The conditions of navigation, however, will always be unstable, with more wind, more drift ice, and of course sea ice in winter."

Photo: The Arctic Council/Facebook

Either way, Vauraste says the melting ice "guarantees growth" for businesses such as his. As opportunistic as it may sound, that's a position shared by a number of decision-makers in the Arctic. Regardless of the changes afoot, the daily needs of the region's approximately 4 million inhabitants must be met, and that of course means jobs.

"Melting ice is caused by countries that do not belong to the Arctic zone," says Kristin Roymo, the mayor of Tromso. "Making the Arctic a protected area would serve no purpose. We need green growth, here just like in the rest of the world."

Russian officials who are very present in Tromso agree. "We control 22,000 kilometers of Arctic coast and the region represents 10% of our GDP, 20% of our exports," says Igor Neverov, a representative from Russia's Foreign Affairs Ministry. "It is true that we neglected the area after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but now we're back."

The most vivid sign of Russia's return to the Arctic area is the $27 billion Yamal LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) plant that Vladimir Putin inaugurated last December. The facility is partly owned by French energy giant Total (20%) and promises to greatly increase Russian natural gas exports via the new northern trade route.

The Singapore of the Arctic?

The Russians aren't alone in looking north. In the United States, Donald Trump wants to reopen oil exploration in Alaska. China, already present in numerous mining projects in the Canadian Archipelago or Greenland, is also on board to invest in Alaska. It plans to spend $43 billion to develop a natural gas deposit there, the largest investment ever made in the Arctic. And just last month, Beijing published a document incorporating the Arctic in the framework of its so-called New Silk Road initiative.

For Rune Rafaelsen, mayor of the Norwegian town of Kirkenes, China could also shake things up in Scandinavia, where it is playing with the possibility of constructing a rail corridor linking Kirkenes, the first port of Western Europe after the Russian border, to the Finnish city of Rovaniemi by the Baltic Sea. "Rovaniemi is connected to the rest of the European rail network, so this allow cargo vessels to bypass [Norway's] North Cape, saving them several days," he says.​

Photo: Liu Shiping/ZUMA

For now the rail corridor is just an idea, but the mayor of Kirkenes — a small village of 5,000 inhabitants who eke out a living from king crab fishing — is already dreaming. "Soon we'll be the Singapore of the Arctic," he says.

China has been a member state of the Arctic Council since 2013. As part of the New Silk Road initiative, Beijing is actively encouraging investment in Arctic infrastructure, oil and gas ventures, fishing and even tourism. It also participated in the aforementioned Yamal project.

"Some people might have reservations about our participation in the development of the Arctic, that we are plundering resources and destroying the environment," China's deputy minister of foreign affairs, Kong Xuanyou, recently said in an effort to reassure the international community. "For me, this type of concern is absolutely irrelevant."

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