BEFORE OUR EYES, the Arctic is changing from an impenetrable wasteland into an oceanic crossroads. The polar ice cap has lost up to half its thickness near the North Pole in just the past six years and may have passed a tipping point; it is now shrinking at more than three times the rate predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change only four years ago. At the current pace, the Arctic may well be ice-free in summer by 2013.
The opening of a new waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans is akin in historic significance to the opening of the Suez Canal, in 1869, or is Panamanian cousin, in 1914. With this sea change will come the rise and fall of international seaports, newfound access to nearly a quarter of the world's remaining undiscovered oil and gas reserves, and a recalibration of geo-strategic power.