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Troubled waters: a Russian icebreaker makes a voyage along the Northern Sea Route © Elena Chernyshova/Panos Pictures

The battle for the Arctic

The great powers have embarked on a new scramble for the Arctic, as profitable sea routes open up in melting ice. But unless we can salvage the region’s fragile ecology, all humanity’s fortunes will sink

The Arctic might be one of the coldest regions on the planet but temperatures there are rising three times more quickly than elsewhere. Its sea ice is melting: last year, the volume of Arctic ice reached the second-lowest level ever recorded. This isn’t just a crisis for polar bears; the ice’s reflection of solar radiation—known as the “albedo effect”—is a check on global warming. As the ice recedes, more sunlight is absorbed into the oceans, stepping up the rate of climate change.

While the concept of “zombie fires” sounds like something out of Dawn of the Dead, they are real and increasingly devastating to the Arctic. These fires are almost impossible to extinguish because they smoulder underground in peatbogs. They contributed to the eruption of wildfires across Siberia, Alaska and northern Canada that emitted an estimated 244 megatonnes of CO2 between January and August 2020. Satellite data showed…

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