Earth & Conservation

Bering Strait: Mythic and Critical

The Bering Strait is emerging from the shrouds of prehistory to become a world transit mecca.

<p>Golovin, Alaska // Photo: William Poor</p>

The Bering Strait is one of those particular focal points on the globe. It's the place where North America and Asia almost meet (they're a measly 53 miles shy). The international date line shoots right through it. During the Cold War, the strait was nicknamed "the Ice Curtain" due to the nerve-wracking proximity of the United States to the Soviet Union there.

And, for the better part of the 20th century, it was believed that humans first reached the Americas by crossing the Bering Strait via a land bridge some 13,000 years ago. The "Clovis First" theory, as it's called, is now riddled with holes -- but that hasn't stopped us from thinking of the strait in almost mythic terms.

Today, the Bering Strait is garnering international attention for a completely different reason: it's an important gateway to and from the Arctic. Historically, passage through the Arctic Ocean has been dicey at best -- sea ice is too thick in the winter, and summer season is too short.

But warming global temperatures are causing a phenomenon known as "Arctic Amplification": sea ice is bright and reflective, but as it melts, it exposes the darker ocean, which absorbs more sunlight and warms further. All told, the Arctic is warming at twice the pace of the global average. That means thinner ice and longer summers.

It also means that the Arctic, once essentially off-limits for shipping and resource exploitation, is more and more accessible. And the world has taken notice. Shipping through the Arctic, and crucially through the Bering Strait, is on the rise -- and experts expect this only to accelerate in the next few decades.

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Many companies, for example, have already begun shipping goods from Shanghai, China to Hamburg, Germany through the Bering Strait and along Russia's Northern coast. That route is about 3,800 miles shorter than the more southern trip through the Suez Canal. If traffic through the strait continues to grow as expected, it will earn its newest nickname: the next Panama Canal.

The ramifications of this global shift to the North are complex, to say the least. Alaska, for one, stands to benefit dramatically, especially if a proposed deep-water port is funded in Nome. The small frontier town lies on the Bering Sea just south of the strait, and could become a major stopping-off point for ships transiting the North. And with oil prices as low as they are, leaders in Alaska are looking to diversify the state's economy.

"We take advantage of the resources we have, but geography is perhaps our greatest resource," Nome's mayor, Richard Beneville, told Seeker recently. "And we need to take advantage of that too because the world is coming here."

More complicated is the fact that humans aren't the only species that relies on the Bering Strait: Numerous whale, seal, and other marine species use the strait to pass between parts of the Bering and Chuchki seas, just as we do. More shipping means that those species, and commercial interests, will operate in very close quarters.

And finally, the geopolitics of the region could get prickly. No one nation owns the strait itself - but both Russia and the United States have a vested interest in maintaining influence there. Passage through the Panama and Suez canals is expensive, whereas the Bering Strait is free, so it stands to reason that both nations may want to act as gatekeepers however they're able.

There's clearly a lot of opportunity, and money, surfacing in the far North. And as the world looks to the Arctic, all interested nations will need to buy into an unprecedented level of cooperation to ensure that changes there are handled smoothly, safely and respectfully.