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Lawson W. Brigham is Distinguished Professor of Geography & Arctic Policy at the University of
Alaska Fairbanks and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of the North.
Thinking About the ‘New’ Arctic Geography
Lawson W. Brigham
A confluence of globalization, climate change, and geopolitics is heralding a new age of Arctic
geography. Landscapes and seascapes at the top of the world today are highly dynamic. Most are
rapidly changing under the influence of anthropogenic warming, resulting in new perspectives of the
Arctic’s physical geography that could not have been envisioned only a few decades ago. The
extraordinary changes in sea ice coverage are perhaps the most iconic and compelling images of a
new and transformed Arctic. New political boundaries are also evolving – witness the 2010
delimitation agreement between Norway and the Russian Federation in the Barents Sea. After four
decades of diplomatic efforts, why has a settlement in this shared Arctic space been reached early in
the 21
century? There is little doubt this new geographic boundary and strengthened, bi-lateral
cooperation are pragmatic political responses to the
economic realities
at play in the Barents offshore.
Furthermore, once remote, Arctic continental shelves (among the broadest on the planet) have
seemingly ‘overnight’ become coveted real estate due to their potential for hydrocarbon wealth and
increasing marine accessibility. Developing seabed maps to define the spatial extent of these shelves
has become critically important to the national sovereignty of five Arctic Ocean coastal states (who
hold the potential for extended seabed claims), as well to a host of investors, insurers, hydrocarbon
explorers and offshore developers…many poised to become influential stakeholders in a future
I am sure it is confounding to many that something coined UNCLOS – very familiar to all of us who
work on ocean affairs, but arcane and obscure to most global citizens – essentially casts a
comprehensive ‘legal net’ over the maritime Arctic and by itself, alters and shapes the political
geography of the region. However, UNCLOS serves a useful geographic function as it reaffirms to a