Shifting Outlines

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How a map is drawn says more about the interests and intentions of the cartographers than it does about the space it describes.

Take, for example, these various maps of the Arctic. For most of human existence, the Arctic has been a place of myth, fascination and exploration. For a very few, it’s been home.

Mercator-Hondius Map of the Arctic (1606). Source: Wikipedia

Mercator-Hondius Map of the Arctic (1606).
Source: Wikipedia

This first map is perhaps more interesting for its cartographical innovations (the use of the Mercator Projection) than its speculative geography that posits a whirlpool swirling around a black rock that represented the magnetic north pole. Note how closely identified and labeled the claimed territories are, how open and blank the rest is from the perspective of a European map maker.

This next one gets closer to my point of discussion today.

1715 map by Dutch cartographer Frederick de Wit. Source: Canadian Geographic

1715 map by Dutch cartographer Frederick de Wit.
Source: Canadian Geographic

It shows outlines of the Arctic continent based on survey reports, and leaves out the parts that likely were not yet verified. More intriguing than the map itself are the surrounding illustrations of the riches to be found in the territory. Whales. It’s no surprise that this map is of Dutch origin.

Around the beginning of the 18th century, the Dutch moved many of their whaling operations from bays into the open sea. The Arctic, territory of ice and water, had a major energy resource for that era: whale blubber.

It was only later, when cheaper fuels took its place, that whale oil lost its primacy as an energy source (although it was still being used until the 1970s as, for example, automatic transmission oil in the United States and as a base for margarine).

Which brings me to this map, newly released by National Geographic. Actually, it’s modern and informative for a couple of reasons.

A GIF of National Geographic atlases from 1999 through 2014 shows how Arctic ice has melted over time. Go here for a discussion of the criteria used to create this map. Caption/Image: National Geographic

A GIF of National Geographic atlases from 1999 through 2014 shows how Arctic ice has melted over time.
Go here for a discussion of the criteria used to create this map.
Caption/Image: National Geographic

First of all, in its GIF presentation, it shows a trend rather than a static snapshot.

Second, that trend is concerned with the shrinking size of the Arctic, which makes this map a pointed commentary on climate change as much as it is a description of territory.

How that commentary is interpreted in other maps again illustrates our interests and desires.

Because the Arctic is shrinking, many assumptions made over the centuries can be re-evaluated. For example, the existence of a Northwest Passage, the long-sought sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that is only now becoming truly navigable by large ships.

The ice shrinkage also means that more is accessible than new waterways. The sea bed, buried under ice, is now available for exploration. More importantly, for exploitation.

Arctic Ocean Seafloor Features Map: International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean annotated with the names of seafloor features.  Caption/Image: Geology.com

Arctic Ocean Seafloor Features Map: International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean annotated with the names of seafloor features.
Caption/Image: Geology.com

The Arctic has always been subject to territorial claims, but climate change renders those claims much more interesting to the five Arctic-bordering nations: United States, Denmark, Canada, Russia and Norway. All have been in the process of staking out the extent of their extended continental shelves for some time now, some more vociferously than others.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), these five countries can claim an extended continental shelf. If the claims are validated, the countries gain exclusive rights to resources on or below the seabed of their respective extended shelf area.

Which brings me to this map, which outlines potential oil and gas reserves on the Arctic sea bed.

Arctic Oil and Natural Gas Provinces Map: The United States Geological Survey estimates that over 87% of the Arctic's oil and natural gas resource (about 360 billion barrels oil equivalent) is located in seven Arctic basin provinces. Caption/Image: Geology.com

Arctic Oil and Natural Gas Provinces Map: The United States Geological Survey estimates that over 87% of the Arctic’s oil and natural gas resource (about 360 billion barrels oil equivalent) is located in seven Arctic basin provinces.
Caption/Image: Geology.com

And this, really, is what it’s all about.

The Arctic region has been estimated to hold up to one-quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves – energy resources almost as outdated as whale oil.

Small surprise, then, that Russia dropped a flag on the Arctic sea bed in 2007. The country has been pushing to claim 1.2 million sq km (463,000 sq miles) of the Arctic shelf.

Which is to say, all of it.

What better way to take advantage of the effects of climate change in the Arctic than by mining it for the very fuels that are causing climate change in the first place?

It looks like the changing Arctic outlines could force a redrawing of the maps in more ways than one.

2 responses »

  1. Love your article and beautiful maps. Loved more your conclusion , the irony is felt sorely but will shape the future of that region ……

    Like

    • Thanks, Cécile! I’m sure there will be many kinds of exploration along newly-accessible Arctic sea beds, but the kind that matters will probably be the kind that leaves spills and stains.

      Like

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