Earth & Conservation

Could Alaska Be The New Center For Global Trade?

With melting ice caps, the Bering Strait may become a new passage for global trade routes. So how will this new trade route impact Alaska?

Have you ever heard of the Bering Strait? If you haven't, you're not the only one. The Bering Strait is a very remote part of the northern hemisphere that runs between Alaska and Russia, connecting the Pacific and Arctic oceans, and it's pretty minimized on most maps.

This part of the world hasn't received much attention since the gold rush in Nome, Alaska in the early 20th Century. The town was booming during the rush but has since dwindled to a sleepy population of only 3,800 people.

There aren't many ways to get from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in the northern hemisphere. The Panama Canal and the Bering Strait are pretty much it. But the Bering Strait has never been a viable option because the ice in the water is so thick, making it nearly impossible for boats to cross safely -- until now.

In recent years, climate change has caused the ice to significantly thin out, opening up the Arctic region to the world. The Arctic is actually warming at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the world. This will allow new shipping routes to be opened around the world by the year 2050. Some companies have already begun shipping products from Shanghai, China to Hamburg, Germany via the Bering Strait, rather than the Suez Canal as they did previously, which is a shorter route by 3,800 miles.

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All of this means that Nome is on track to greatly benefit from climate change. They are the only port in all of western Alaska that has a dock and a boat harbor. They're even in talks to build a deep water harbor that would allow them to dock hundreds more ships.

However, other Alaskan towns along the Bering Strait aren't quite as excited about the way climate change is affecting their communities. In Golovin, AK, a town of only about 150 native Alaskans, residents rely heavily on hunting and gathering to sustain themselves, as food and supplies are so costly in remote communities. But a more volatile climate has made hunting unreliable, and potentially dangerous weather is on the rise.

The incredibly damaging storms that once occurred in the Bering Strait every 50 years are now happening every 2-3 years. Flooding from this kind of weather could displace the entire town of Golovin, effectively making the residents climate change refugees.

The Arctic region provides incredible insight into the changing climate of planet Earth, perhaps more so than any other region in the world. It's important that we take these significant changes very seriously.

Learn More:

Encyclopedia Britannica: Bering Strait

Der Spiegel: Northeast Passage: Russia Moves to Boost Arctic Shipping

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America:
New Trans-Arctic shipping routes navigable by midcentury

Kawerak Planning Department: 2008 Bering Strait Region: Data and Statistics Report

-- Molly Fosco