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The Arctic is melting, setting off a scramble among countries and corporations to tap into the vast natural resources believed to lie below the ocean floor. GlobalPost examines this complex geopolitical puzzle — and the potential risks and rewards of an unprecedented opportunity.

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Trillions of dollars are on the line — and not just in corporate profits. America risks losing huge government revenues too.

A glacier is seen off the coast of Kraushavn, Greenland, July 22, 2012. Kraushavn sits at the beginning of the Northwest Passage, a sea route through the Arctic Ocean, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

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About This Project

THE BERING STRAIT — The Arctic is melting.

Satellite data released in August confirmed that Arctic sea ice hit a record low, tracking below the previous record melt which was set in 2007.

And amid the great thaw, a titanic struggle for power and influence has pushed its way to the surface. This battle at the top of the world is unleashing peril for a delicate environment and the way of life for the indigenous people who live here, but it is also unlocking opportunity for exploration of vast untapped mineral resources. Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake.

The eight nations that make up the Arctic Council — the US, Russia, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Finland — face enormous challenges in balancing an environmental catastrophe caused by global warming against a huge rush by petroleum companies to lay claim to the wealth of resources.

When Russian submarines in the North Pole planted a titanium flag on the floor of the Arctic Ocean back in 2007, there were fears that conflict could erupt over the oil and natural gas resources in the High North. But in the five years since, it seems that pioneering efforts for diplomacy are winning out over any rumors of war. There are many issues to resolve, but it seems the eight nations of the Arctic are working together to resolve them.

The oil industry believes this mother lode of oil and gas (the Arctic holds 10 percent of the world’s untapped oil and 30 percent of its natural gas) can now be extracted and brought to market through shipping lanes that, due to the melt, are reliably passable for the first time in history.

This GlobalPost Special Report is a first step in a commitment by GlobalPost to cover this sprawling, complex story as best we can in the coming years. Some economists make a convincing argument that the Arctic is the world’s last emerging economy.

Clearly, we need to be up here telling the story. 

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