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Originally published Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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Book review

'The Future History of the Arctic': a balanced look

Author Charles Emmerson's "The Future History of the Arctic" looks at the history of the Earth's northernmost region, including how nations have used its natural resources, to understand how this past frames its future. Emmerson discusses his book Monday at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Charles Emmerson

The author of "The Future History of the Arctic" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $5 (tickets: 800-838-3006, or buy them at the door).

Often overlooked and mostly unknown for much of human history, the Arctic has recently started to emerge from its cloak of anonymity. It has become an important source of oil and natural gas not only for the United States but also for Norway, Russia and Canada. It is front and center in the debate and the scientific studies over global warming. And, if the climate continues its warming trend, the Arctic may become an important trade route as ships ply the Northwest Passage, a Northeast Passage, or possibly a Trans-Polar Route directly across the North Pole. (In 1977, the Soviet nuclear icebreaker, Arktika, became the first surface ship to reach the pole.)

Despite the growing interest in and understanding of the Arctic, what it is is not clear. A simple definition is that it begins at the line of latitude at north 66deg33'39" we call the Arctic Circle. Talk to biologists, climatologists and politicians, however, and the definition becomes more foggy and often self-serving. "But for most of us, the Arctic is above all an idea. It cannot be mapped; it can only be described. Cold, isolation, emptiness, white, pristine — these are the terms the word 'Arctic' calls to mind," writes Charles Emmerson in his thought-provoking "The Future History of the Arctic" (PublicAffairs, 448 pp., $28.95).

Emmerson, a geopolitical specialist who was the associate director of the World Economic Forum, takes a broad approach to reporting on the Arctic. As his title implies, he focuses on the region's history — particularly how the Arctic nations have used the area's resources — to understand how past ideas frame the future. And as one can imagine, those ideas vary drastically, from symbol of national identity to source of wealth to homeland, potentially driving many different outcomes.

Of the five main players in the Arctic, Russia has the most at stake and the most complicated past. Lenin and Stalin viewed it as a place to be conquered, often through the use and abuse of those considered threats to the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, Moscow saw the Arctic as a base for nuclear weapons; and under Putin's government, the Arctic's oil and natural gas have helped fund Russia's rapid growth. What will the future bring? Curiously, Arctic waters still contain many nuclear-equipped Russian submarines, and the big drop in oil prices in 2009 showed the vulnerability of relying too heavily on natural resources.

Emmerson doesn't offer prescriptions for the future and observes that we are at a tipping point. Will science, stewardship and cooperation win out over self-serving politics and economic demands? He warns, "We can no longer deal with the Arctic as we would wish it to be — in the future, we will have to deal with the Arctic as it is." His book provides a good primer for understanding that future.

David B. Williams is the Seattle-based author of "Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology." You can read his blog at

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