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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Impacts of Climate Change on Human Access and Resource Development in the Arctic

  • Author(s): Stephenson, Scott Ryan
  • Advisor(s): Smith, Laurence C
  • Agnew, John A
  • et al.

As the Arctic Ocean transitions to a seasonally ice-free state, efforts to strengthen connections between the Arctic and the global economy are underway. After decades of use primarily as local transport arteries servicing settlements and domestic industries, Arctic shipping routes are being recast as international seaways for export of resources to world markets and as potential alternative pathways for global trade. In addition, global demand for oil, gas and minerals has driven expansion of extractive industries into increasingly accessible offshore locations. However, the degree to which reduced sea ice will realistically enable marine access is not well understood, and numerous economic and political uncertainties complicate resource extraction activities. Understanding the interrelationship of the physical environment and the development goals of state- and non-state actors is vital to determining the role of the Arctic in the future global energy mix. This dissertation seeks to articulate a synoptic picture of future human activity in the Arctic by examining a range of plausible scenarios of climate projections, transport logistics, regional politics, and extractive networks. Future marine access projections were performed by quantitative spatial analysis of climate model output and ocean bathymetry in GIS (Chapters 3 and 4). Analysis of the political and economic context of Arctic resource extraction (Chapters 2 and 5) was based on readings of scholarly literature, government reports, and newspaper articles. Climate scenarios illustrate a future of limited marine access in summer for most vessels throughout the 21st century with significantly higher navigation potential for ice-strengthened vessel types. Environmental conditions, along with national and local political structures, comprise the critical spatial context in which dense networks of state-owned and international oil and gas companies operate. While marine access is projected to increase for all climate scenarios, a wide range of futures is possible, and technology and infrastructure often figure more importantly than climatic forcing scenario alone. Therefore, a central conclusion of this dissertation is that Arctic marine access depends strongly upon capital investment in addition to geophysical considerations of sea ice.

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