6. Images of the future

What are the main drivers of change in the Arctic, according to the literature we have reviewed? What images of the future are conveyed? Do the images contain wildcards that alter or modify the line of development significantly?

Driving forces

The message from all the publications is that the Arctic and the associated policies and activities will develop into a future state that is different from the present. Climate change is the driving force emphasised by almost all the publications. This is made explicit already in the introductory sections or it reads more indirectly, like in Brigham (2007). But not all studies include climate aspects. In several of them this issue is omitted due to their thematic focus, geographical delimitation or time horizon (e.g. Barlindhaug 2006; Billyard et al. 2010; Brunstad et al. 2004; ECON 2006; Olsen & Iversen 2010; Oljedirektoratet 2007). Furthermore, climate change rarely appears as the sole driving force. Typically, it is paired with driving forces relating to the demand for Arctic resources and the geopolitical circumstances.

Two main storylines can be discerned: The first starts with climate change and receding sea ice cover, and concentrates on expanding economic activity in the Arctic. Here, population growth, increasing globalisation, high demand for oil, gas and other natural resources, technology development, and the search for new shipping lanes are most frequently mentioned as major driving forces. The second concentrates on issues relating to politics, governance and security. In this context, the end of the cold war, the economic and political interests of the Arctic states and other global players, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and disputed boundaries play a central role.

Future prospects

As already alluded to, the studies differ both in time perspective and scope. The bulk of the publications employ a long time perspective, of 20 years or more, but some operate with a shorter time span. There are also a few that address the future in general, without mentioning any specific time horizon (e.g. Anderson 2009; Rabinowitz 2009; Seidler 2009). The variation is also great when it comes to thematic and geographical coverage. About half of the studies focus on single sectors and specific countries and regions, while the other half is cross-sectoral and looks at the Arctic in a larger context. They contain from only one and up to eight images of the future at the most (Olsen & Iversen 2008).

The studies provide a rich account of trends, driving forces and challenges. Overall, it appears clearly that the Arctic is destined to become a region of greater economic and political importance. The general assumption is that the marine Arctic will become more accessible as the ice is melting. It is also assumed that the region has great resource potentials. Thus, the Arctic will see an increase in oil and gas development and shipping. Several other industries are mentioned too, notably mining and mineral industries, fisheries and lumbering, but these are largely neglected in the studies we have reviewed.

Even though the economic activities are expected to expand, there are disagreement and uncertainty regarding their scale and scope. It is pointed out that the reduction in the extent, thickness and age of the Arctic Ocean sea ice does not mean that the ocean will become ice-free, even during the summer season. Drifting ice represents a permanent risk. Oil and gas operations in ice-infested waters are challenging, and the great distances to the main markets imply that the costs of transportation and infrastructure will be high. While many cite the U.S. Geological Survey’s estimates of undiscovered Arctic oil and gas resources, only Peters et al. (2011) carry out their own assessment of future oil and gas production. Similarly, Arctic shipping is expected to be increasing, but in the coming decades this will primarily be driven by the extraction of resources from the region and cruise tourism. Most likely, destination shipping will play a more prominent role than transcontinental shipping.

In some of the literature it is asserted that an Artic “gold rush” is on the way. Unsettled boundaries and a fight for resources have ignited a “scramble for the Arctic” (e.g. Borgerson 2008; Seidler 2009; Sale & Potapov 2010). In the future, the Arctic will be witnessing increasing rivalry and conflict. However, the dominant view is that peaceful cooperation will prevail in the Arctic. There might be competition and tensions that involve the threat of using military power, but it is not expected that conflicts will escalate into full armed confrontations and war between states (cf. Diesen 2008; IISS 2008; Howard 2009; Brigham 2010).

Several arguments are put forth to substantiate this position: Firstly, the valuable natural resources in the Arctic are mainly located within the undisputed exclusive economic zones of the Arctic coastal states. Secondly, what appears as attempts at land grabbing by the Arctic coastal states is actually sparked off by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the procedures laid down for delineating the outer continental shelf. Thirdly, the Arctic coastal states have declared that they will adhere to international law and solve all disputes peacefully. The Arctic Council is also gaining ground as a high-level intergovernmental forum for addressing the key issues faced by the Arctic governments, the indigenous people of the Arctic, and other stakeholders. Fourthly, resource exploitation in the Arctic and the challenges of climate and environmental change will require cross-border scientific and technological cooperation, which is already well developed in the field of research and monitoring. Fifthly, while the chance of limited military conflicts should not be ruled out, no states will presumably benefit from a large-scale war over Arctic resources or territories. So given that political and military leaders act rationally, the Arctic will not turn into a combat zone.

But acknowledging the limited value of predictions, many of the studies try to stretch imagination in order to capture the range of new and unforeseen directions in which the future may evolve. In Brigham (2008), for instance, four scenarios are developed for Arctic shipping, based on a matrix created by two framing factors: the level of demand for and trade with Arctic resources, and the degree of stability of rules for marine use. The four scenarios are labelled Arctic Race (high demand and unstable governance), Arctic Saga (high demand and stable governance), Polar Lows (low demand and unstable governance), and Polar Preserve (low demand and stable governance). Even single studies thus provide alternative stories of the future, and the interesting question is how they identify and explore the driving forces, trends and critical uncertainties that shape the possible and plausible outcomes.

A common feature of all the literature we have reviewed is that the main forces of change are emanating from outside the Arctic. The people of the region, their local governments, businesses and associations, only play a marginal role.

Uncertainties and wildcards

Change processes are seldom linear. Instead, they are complex and disorderly. Wildcards are those low-probability, high-impact events they may have a disruptive effect and cause discontinuity. To what extent are such disruptive elements considered in our sample of literature?

In some studies, like in Smith (2011), a number of uncertainties are explicitly excluded. He assumes that there will be no large conflicts, no radical technological breakthroughs, no change in major laws and treaties, no high impact events, etc. In this way he can concentrate on those drivers and trends that are deemed to have a basic and foreseeable effect. Most of the studies are not that explicit. Here, the key drivers have different degrees of uncertainty attributed to them. Hence, their range of variation indicates the level of uncertainty in terms of outcomes.

In the studies focusing on the exploitation of natural resources, global trade patterns, world market prices, infrastructure investments, the development of surveillance and control systems, transit fees, future climate policy, legal frameworks, and tensions and disputes over sovereignty and jurisdiction in Arctic waters are among the factors that can make a difference (e.g. Brunstad 2007; Brigham 2008; Conley et al. 2012). Russian politics is also a major source of uncertainty. As Russia is the largest stakeholder in the Arctic, exerting great influence on future economic activities as well as governance and security conditions, the twists and turns of Russian politics are of vital importance (cf. Blakkisrud et al. 2008; Seidler 2009; Rabinowitz 2009; Billyard et al. 2010).

However, several studies also consider additional wildcards. It can be major oil spills, shipping disasters, foreign ships that enter into national territorial water without consent, conflicts in other parts of the world that spill into the Arctic, terrorist attacks, etc. Such events may be included in the storylines, but in some cases the wildcards are brought in after the presentation of the scenarios, as the question is raised: “what if…?” (e.g. Brunstad et al. 2004; Hernes et al. 2007; Arctic Council 2009; Ducharme & Brightman 2011). The introduction of wildcards then serves as a starting point for a discussion of the scenarios and their foundation.

In future studies, uncertainties abound. There is no crystal ball into which the future can be gazed. When reliable predictions and forecasts are in short supply, thinking in terms of alternative futures might be the only option for robust policy-making and strategy development. Hopefully, our review will stimulate further thoughts and reflections on the future of the Arctic. We hope that others will supplement with more reviews, and that these activities will contribute to a better foundation for future oriented studies of this rapidly changing region.