Wealth of the Arctic
Trade, trends, and opportunity at northern latitudes
By Lincoln Garrick and Rachael Miller
Neorodan| iStock

he Arctic: a term often used to broadly describe a large swath of land and sea in the north. It is a region with geographic, political, and cultural definitions. According to the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland, it is the region that surrounds the North Pole, with no single definition of a southern boundary. In Alaska, 66° north latitude is commonly used as the line of demarcation, but there are many other ways to delineate this boundary including growing zones, temperatures, biological indicators, Indigenous homelands, or political boundaries. For us, the authors, and most of you, the readers—the Arctic is home.

Arctic countries, known as the “Arctic Eight,” comprise Canada, Greenland (Denmark), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Why the US? Alaska’s 663,300 square miles qualify the United States to be an Arctic nation.

The Arctic Eight’s land mass comprises roughly 3.2 million square miles, and those countries also control another 2.7 million square miles of seabed in exclusive economic zones on their continental shelves, which sit under less than 1,640 feet of water. The rest of the Arctic is made up of international waters that lie beyond the 200-nautical-mile limit of any country’s economic zone.

Two geologists in orange jumpsuits and hardhats stooping to pick up big rocks, big machine in background
Dr. Alex Andronikov, a geologist from the University of Michigan Department of Geological Science, and Kelley Brumley, a geologist from Stanford University, sort through rocks that were dredged from the Arctic Ocean floor September 9, 2009, aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy. The dredging is part of the US Extended Continental Shelf Task Force’s effort to locate the outer reaches of the North American continental shelf.

US Geological Survey

Arctic Resources
Visions abound of oil pipelines, fishery fleets, timber trucks, mine sites, and cruise ships. While economic diversification has come to the Arctic along with calls and movement towards renewable and regenerative systems, the giants of traditional energy resources like oil and gas continue to reign supreme as income sources for Arctic countries. This is slowly changing; the shifting environmental climate may make it more amenable to industries like field-scale agriculture and climate adaptation technologies.

Oil, Gas, and Minerals: The Arctic holds an estimated 13 percent (90 billion barrels) of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil resources and 30 percent of its undiscovered conventional natural gas resources (1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids), according to a 2008 Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal (CARA) assessment conducted by the US Geological Survey. The direct cost of oil and gas extraction, including building infrastructure and transporting it to markets, remains considerably higher than economic alternatives like in the Middle East; however, domestic energy security remains a solid investment.

During the next 100 years, mineral wealth from gold, silver, copper, nickel, lead, iron, mica, uranium, platinum-group elements, precious stones, and rare earth elements will likely be the Arctic’s main extractive resource instead of petroleum products. Unlike the majority of oil and gas reserves that are in offshore areas (roughly 84 percent), most mineral reserves are located within the boundaries of Arctic nation-states. The combination of an increased need for these technology minerals to make batteries, electronics, wind turbines, and electric vehicle motors plus a warming Arctic means higher demand and relatively easier access for the Arctic’s minerals.

Overall economic output in the Arctic is currently low when compared to other global regions, but it has been increasing in recent decades. Developing technologies and an increase in access to the region’s natural resources may lead to a significant increase in economic activity.
Biodiversity: Despite making up only 5 percent of Earth’s land (about 60 percent of the Arctic is sea and ice), the Arctic is home to globally significant biodiversity, with more than 21,000 identified species and still more yet to be studied. These are critical to ecosystem resiliency, and in turn food, land, and human security.

Notably, it is habitat for 30 percent of all shorebird species, for two-thirds of the global population of geese, and for several million reindeer and caribou. During the brief summer breeding season, nearly 200 bird species from various parts of the world migrate to the Arctic, creating important connections between this region and the rest of the globe, according to the 2013 publication Arctic Biodiversity Assessment from the Arctic Council. These species’ migrations are critical to environmental resilience, and they are also a driver for tourism dollars at every stop along their journeys to and from the north.

Fisheries and Mariculture: The pristine fisheries of the Arctic are relatively small compared to other areas, with an average catch of 34.4 million tons from 2011 to 2017, according to the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which accounts for roughly 17 percent of the estimated wild global catch, with an average annual landed value of $560 million.

Geologists examine oil-saturated Oligocene sandstone in the Sagavanirktok Formation exposed on Marsh Creek anticline near Katakturuk River in western Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 1002 Area. Debates about resource development in the refuge’s coastal plain apply broadly to much of the Arctic region.

US Geological Survey

Two geologists in orange vests, looking at a large rock formation in the tundra
One growing area is mariculture, the cultivation of fish, seaweed, and shellfish. In a 2021 final report to Governor Mike Dunleavy, the Alaska Mariculture Task Force detailed examples of industry success, including the fifty-six species commercially cultivated in British Columbia, generating approximately $1.8 billion in economic activity.

Agriculture: Arctic agriculture has historically been viewed as low yield and generally inadequate to satisfy local community needs. However, developments in geothermal greenhouse technology, global warming, and an increasing interest in traditional Arctic or “authentic” production methods may drive both the demand and supply for Arctic-grown foods. The soil and water below ground have ample thermal energy in the Arctic, so geothermal heating systems, like heat pumps, can recover this energy, converting it to heat to utilize in greenhouses and other buildings.

Ice-free summers could open new shipping routes through the Arctic, but unintended consequences from an ice-free Arctic are unknown, leading to many questions.
This technology is already in use residentially in Alaska, with one in seven homes in Juneau currently heated by a heat pump. Iceland has been using this technology for growing since 1924 and has more than 45 acres of greenhouse growing space producing cucumbers, strawberries, lettuce, red and green peppers, mushrooms, and herbs. Icelandic shoppers can look for “islenskt” on produce packaging, which indicates the origin as Icelandic—their version of Alaska Grown.

Other renewable technologies are making their way into Arctic farming. Agrivoltaics is the practice of co-locating solar panel systems with field crops. In 2023, UAF and Alaska Pacific University partnered with solar developer Renewable Independent Power Products to evaluate the feasibility of high-latitude agrivoltaics and determine best practices.

However, just because the technology exists doesn’t mean it will be easy to adopt or scale. This requires a longer on-ramp for new growers and state support to ensure easy access to markets. It also requires original equipment manufacturers’ willingness to service tools and systems. Alaska Range Dairy in Delta Junction installed the first robotic milking system in the state to combat a lack of affordable agricultural labor.

The Arctic’s temperatures have risen at almost three times the global average since the ‘80s, warming faster than any other region on Earth, so a warmer and longer outdoor growing season may eventually produce more and diverse Arctic crops. According to the 2019 report “The Arctic as a Food Producing Region” by the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group: “An ongoing North-Atlantic collaboration has identified a possible northward expansion of barley cultivation because of temperature increase. With a changing diet preference, the market demands more vegetable-based products which can increase production of berries and vegetables in the Arctic.”

Published in the April 2020 journal Food Policy, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan examined attitudes about traditional Arctic foods, which were associated with a distinct cultural identity. Their questions mostly focused on wild fish, fowl, and mammals, but gathered plants were included. They found consumers were interested in such foods based on “the uniqueness of geographic origin, a pristine environment, cultural connection with Indigenous peoples, as well as the potential to promote regional economic development.”

Overall economic output in the Arctic is currently low when compared to other global regions, but it has been increasing in recent decades. Developing technologies and an increase in access to the region’s natural resources may lead to a significant increase in economic activity.

First Peoples
The Arctic is inhabited by approximately 4 million people, according to the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland’s 2023 Arctic Human Development report. Indigenous people are estimated to comprise 10 percent of the total population, but this number could be much higher because different countries have varying definitions of who is indigenous. Indigenous peoples have inhabited the Arctic for thousands of years. The Arctic’s proportion of Indigenous people is estimated to be about 10 percent of the total population with more than 40 different ethnic groups.
Erosion on Alaska’s Arctic Coast exposes permafrost.

US Geological Survey

Man standing on the edge of a cliff over the ocean, which had recently eroded
An Ice-Free Arctic Passage
The Arctic has a lot of ice, with recent satellite data from September 2022 indicating ice coverage of 4.7 million square kilometers (1.8 million square miles) in the Arctic Ocean—that’s more than eleven Californias. However, since satellite imaging started in 1979, NASA scientists have measured a 2-million-square-kilometer decrease in Arctic sea ice—or just under five Californias. An April 2023 study published in the journal Nature Communications proposed that Arctic sea ice could disappear in summer in the 2030s. There remains a fair amount of debate in scientific circles about when the Arctic could experience its first ice-free summer, partly because ice-free doesn’t mean no ice at all.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder: “The term ‘ice-free’ is based on a threshold for sea ice extent: the area of ocean with at least 15 percent sea ice concentration. A consensus has emerged among scientists that the Arctic Ocean is effectively ice-free when its sea ice extent falls below 1 million square kilometers (390,000 square miles)… Sea ice extent below 1 million square kilometers would leave most Arctic waterways open, with remaining sea ice mostly clinging to a portion of the Arctic’s coastlines.”

Ice-free summers could open new shipping routes through the Arctic, but unintended consequences from an ice-free Arctic are unknown, leading to many questions. How will the ecosystem respond? Will treaties keep fishing and other development above board? And is it possible to operate in the Arctic without polluting it?

Opportunity in Times of Change
Any examination of the Arctic requires a solid dose of humility about the many unknowables: what would an ice-free northern sea route mean for the transportation industry and global security, what are emerging threats to the environment and traditional indigenous ways of life, and what new Arctic players like the People’s Republic of China—which has invested more than $90 billion in Arctic infrastructure and views itself as “a near-Arctic state”—might emerge in the next several decades?
Newly opened shipping routes, coastal erosion, melting permafrost, fisheries decline, and more factors have made the far north into a Wild West of potential profit and development.
We are in an era of rapid change in the Arctic. Newly opened shipping routes, coastal erosion, melting permafrost, fisheries decline, and more factors have made the far north into a Wild West of potential profit and development. As the global geopolitical landscape evolves and countries seek to capitalize on these resources, it is critical we get this right. It will require innovation and intentional resource development to get us to a resilient and thriving new Arctic.
Black and white portrait headshot photograph of Lincoln Garrick grinning
Lincoln Garrick is an assistant professor of business, MBA director, and alumnus at Alaska Pacific University. He has more than twenty years of experience in the business, marketing, and communications fields, providing public affairs and strategy services for national and Alaska organizations.
Rachael Miller headshot
Rachael Miller is an Associate Business Professor at Alaska Pacific University, where she teaches entrepreneurship and marketing. She is a two-time startup co-founder and a strategy and communications consultant with deep expertise in food-related projects. Miller was selected as the APU 2017-2020 Walter J. Hickel Professor of Strategic Leadership & Entrepreneurship, currently serves on the Alaska Food Policy Council governing board, leads the University of the Arctic network on Northern Food Security, and consults on northern food systems and economic development initiatives.