The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood,
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
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But in a place where the aurora borealis normally provides celestial beauty, Snow White's luminous apparition also signals caution. What will a new era of exploitation bring to the Arctic, one of the earth's last great uncharted regions? The vast area has long fascinated explorers, but it has just as long been the site of folly and exaggerated expectations. Over centuries, hundreds died in the doomed search for an ice-free Northwest Passage between Asia and Europe, many of them victims of ill-fated stabs at national and personal glory.
This summer, however, saw something new: for the first time in recorded history, the Northwest Passage was ice-free all the way from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The Arctic ice cap's loss through melting this year was 10 times the recent annual average, amounting to an area greater than that of Texas and New Mexico combined. The Arctic has never been immune from politics; during the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet submarines navigated its frigid waters. But now that global warming has rendered the Arctic more accessible than ever — and yet at the same time more fragile — a new frenzy has broken out for control of the trade routes at the top of the world and the riches that nations hope and believe may lie beneath the ice. Just as 150 years ago, when Russia and Britain fought for control of central Asia, it is tempting to think that — not on the steppe or dusty mountains but in the icy wastes of the frozen north — a new Great Game is afoot.The current interest in the Arctic, in short, is a perfect storm seeded with political opportunism, national pride, military muscle flexing, high energy prices and the arcane exigencies of international law. But the tale begins with global warming, which is transforming the Arctic. The ice cap, which floats atop much of the Arctic Ocean, is at least 25% smaller than it was 30 years ago. As the heat-reflecting ice that has made the Arctic the most inaccessible and uncharted part of the earth turns into water — which absorbs heat — the shrinkage is accelerating faster than climate models ever predicted. On Aug. 28, satellite images analyzed by the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center revealed that the Arctic ice cap was already 10% smaller than at its previous record minimum, in September 2005 — and it still had about a month of further melting to go. "If that's not a tipping point, I'd hate to see what a tipping point is," says Mark Serreze, the center's senior research scientist. Trausti Valsson, a professor of environmental planning at the University of Iceland in Reykjav�k, says Arctic warming has become a "self-propelling" process that could leave the Arctic Ocean ice-free in summers by 2040. Even in winter, says Valsson, ice coverage would amount only to what could form in a single season, meaning that "Arctic shipping, with specially built ships, will be easy in all areas during the whole year."
As shrinkage of the ice has made it easier to access the Arctic, competition for the region's resources has intensified. David Ooingoot Kalluk, 66, an Inuit who has hunted on the ice around Resolute for the past 48 years, has sensed the weird new world to come. "The snow and ice now melt from the bottom, not the top," Kalluk says as he glances out over the almost ice-free waters of Resolute Bay and fingers a pair of binoculars. He used to take dogsleds across the ice in June to hunt caribou on nearby Bathurst Island. Now, he says, the ice is too thin even in early May. If the warming continues, he fears that the cod population will shift farther north, disturbing the food chain for the ring-necked seal — the natural staple of the polar bears that regularly stalk the hamlet in the winter months.
Kalluk and his people will just have to adjust, but the polar bears may not be able to. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) predicts that shrinking sea ice will mean a two-thirds reduction in their population by midcentury. Not even strict adherence to the Kyoto accord on limiting greenhouse gases would stop an Arctic meltdown, which means the Arctic, like nowhere else on Earth, is a place where efforts to mitigate global warming have yielded to full-bore adaptation to its impact. That process is freighted with irony. With gas and oil prices near historic highs and with scant prospect of any decrease in world demand for energy, it is only prudent to get a sense of what resources lie below the newly accessible sea. But there is something paradoxical about seeking in the Arctic the very carbon fuels that are melting the northern ice. "The rush to exploit Arctic resources can only perpetuate the vicious cycle of human-induced climate change," says Mike Townsley of Greenpeace International.How can competing claims to the Arctic — of environmentalists and entrepreneurs, nations and natives — be reconciled? Antarctica, with no native population, has been saved from international competition by a treaty signed in 1959, which (among other things) bans all mining there until 2041. There have always been advocates of such an approach in the Arctic, but given well-established local populations and long-standing national claims, they have never gotten very far.
Meanwhile, as they always have, adventurers, hucksters and dreamers will continue to make their way north — some of them in bikinis. Iceland's Valsson sees the Arctic as "the new Mediterranean," with warming temperatures fostering new centers of civilization in Siberia and Arctic Canada. Hammerfest bears witness to some of that: The population is booming, and a sense of hope infuses the economy. But as winter approaches in Resolute and the lowering sky turns dark, Kalluk, the Inuit hunter, suspects that dreams of a new world in the north are overdone. "Whatever else happens," he says, "the sun will still disappear for a good part of the year." The unanswered question is whether that will be enough to preserve the harsh beauty that he and others in the Arctic have long known and cherished.
With reporting by Laura Blue/London, Ulla Plon/Copenhagen, Andrew Purvis/Berlin and Hammerfest, Elisabeth Salemme/New York, Adam Zagorin/Washington and Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow
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