. It is in the Arctic that global warming presents its most dramatic face; the region is warming up twice as fast as the global average. The ice cap is shrinking fast — since 1980, the volume of Arctic sea ice has declined by as much as 75 per cent. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) which would connect the North Atlantic to the North Pacific through a short polar arc was once the stuff of fantasy. The melting ice has now made it a reality and a trickle of commercial cargo vessels has been going through every summer since the last decade. Models predict that this route could be ice free in summer by 2050, if not earlier.
These developments will have a critical impact in several sectors, most fundamentally on climate. The loss of ice and the warming waters will affect sea levels, salinity levels, and current and precipitation patterns. Already, the Tundra is returning to swamp, the permafrost is thawing, sudden storms are ravaging coastlines and wildfires are devastating interior Canada and Russia. The phenomenally rich biodiversity of the Arctic region is under serious threat. Habitat loss and degradation, the absence of year-long ice and higher temperatures are making the survival of Arctic marine life, plants and birds difficult while encouraging species from lower latitudes to move north. The Arctic is also home to about 40 different indigenous groups, whose culture, economy and way of life is in danger of being swept away. Increasing human encroachment with its attendant stresses will only aggravate this impact and upset a fragile balance.
India’s interests in these developments, though distant, are not peripheral. Our extensive coastline makes us vulnerable to the impact of Arctic warming on ocean currents, weather patterns, fisheries and most importantly, our monsoon. Scientific research in Arctic developments, in which India has a good record, will contribute to our understanding of climatic changes in the Third Pole — the Himalayas. The strategic implications of an active China in the Arctic and its growing economic and strategic relationship with Russia are self-evident and need close monitoring. Fortunately, since 2013, India has had a toehold in the region. It has observer status in the Arctic Council, which is the predominant inter-governmental forum for cooperation on the environmental and development (though not the security) aspects of the Arctic.