Skip to main content

Opportunities and Challenges in an ice-free Arctic Ocean

Research question: How will an ice-free Arctic Ocean impact upon cooperationand conflictbetween regional stakeholders?


The Arctic Ocean covers 14 million km2and encompasses the territories of Iceland, Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands (Kingdom of Denmark).

For most of the winter, this vast region is covered by sea ice, a 1-2 m thick skin that forms on the surface of the ocean when seawater freezes. As solar irradiance and air temperature increase in spring and summer, the ice pack undergoes extensive melt and decreases to about half of its maximum winter extent by around mid-September.

Climate change, which is warming the Arctic region three times faster than the global average, is rapidly and dramatically transforming the environment. Over the past 30 years, summer sea-ice  extent has  declined by12% (810  000  km2) per  decade, yielding vast stretches  of  ice-free Arctic waters and spurring forecasts of an ice-free summer Arctic Ocean as soon as 2035.

Vast regions of  the  Arctic,  such  as  the East  Siberian  and  the  Chukchi  Seas,  are  already  on  average  ice-free  in summer, whereas other major marginal seas such as the Barents, Kara, and Laptev are expected to become  ice-free  within  the  next five years. The ice-free Arcticians of ecological, economic, social, and military significance, necessitating a multidisciplinary approach to reaching the impact of an Ice-free Arctic.

Ice-free waters would allow more sunlight to enter the Arctic Ocean, stimulating photosynthetic growth. This could increase ocean biodiversity, stimulate the uptake of CO2from the atmosphere, and alter fisheries yields.

The ice-free Arctic Ocean would link Asian markets to European waters via the Northwest Passage (along the coastline of Canada and the United States), and the Northeast Passage (along the coastline of a resurgent and aggressive Russia in the wake of the Ukraine Crisis). These new routes dubbed the 'Polar Silk Road 'by China, significantly cut time and fuel consumption for Asia-Europe trade.

At the same time, increased activity in the Arctic will increase anthropogenic noise and will introduce new marine species, impacting the unique ecosystem. The ice-free Arctic will also urge the industry to revise procurement, manufacturing, and logistics services as new trade interests develop, and it will encourage states to bolster surveillance and defence capabilities, treading a fine line between conflict and cooperation within the world's most northerly expanse.

Project Objectives

This project will utilise DIAS's unique cross-faculty strengths to explore the opportunities and challenges in a changing ice-free Arctic.

We ask: How will an ice-free Arctic Ocean impact cooperation and conflict between regional stakeholders? Using the diminishing Arctic ice pack as the backdrop to our study, our vision is to develop an understanding of ongoing change within three important and interlinked research areas (Figure 1), namely:

1. Dr Karl Attard: Ocean ecosystems, productivity, and fisheries resources(SDG 14: Life Below Water)

2. Professor Kannan Govindan: Procurement, manufacturing, and logistics (SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production)

3. Dr James Rogers: Governance, competition, and conflict (SDG 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions)

Figure 1: The three research areas and their envisioned synergies

Our proposed research falls well within the remit of three United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which crossover and interchange with one another. While we aim to develop key competences within each of three research fields, we foresee a continuous three-way flow of information to inform, adjust, and focus our activities synergistically (Figure 1).

This project idea emerged during DIAS conversations where we discussed the complex and multifaceted issues arising from a diminishing Arctic ice pack. We believe that by combining our existing interests and expertise on the region, we can create synergies and contribute towards a broader and better academic/policy understanding in a unique and interdisciplinary way that is emblematic of DIAS.

We foresee this topic being of interest toa broad range of researchers at DIAS, within the broader Departments at SDU, the SDU Arctic Researcher Network, the   SDU   Climate   Cluster, and   further   afield across   Denmark   and Internationally.

Research designs

The project will take place in three stages:


Foundational Research Survey (May2022 –Sep2022): In Stage One, we will conduct a major agenda setting survey with key regional stakeholders. This is undertaken to identify the most important issues within our three Underearth areas. Stakeholders include large Arctic-themed fora such as Arctic Council and Arctic Net.

We will distil the survey response and use it to inform and drive our research agenda. The results from this survey will be publishable as a research note submitted to Nature Climate Change. These results will be presented at the Arctic Circle Greenland Forum in August 2022.


Problem Solving and Analysis (September2022 –March 2023): In Stage 2, we will utilize the results of the survey and the problems raised to hold three interdisciplinary workshops (one for each of our research areas).

Each workshop will consist of 10 (min) academic experts from each of our three research areas and stakeholders from the Arctic Council and Arctic Net. Each workshop adopts, and is interlinked by, an overarching Strategic Foresight Analysis (SFA)method, appropriate for the project as the method is designed to "examine the main trends of global change...highlighting challenges as well as opportunities"(NATO Futures, 2020).

As a method, SFA possesses many useful analytical tools, incl. workshops, elite interviews, and policy and archival document analysis; each of which allows a researcher to conduct a focused study on past or recently identify problems and to forecast future opportunities and challenges present by them.

The output of Stage Two will be a pre-approved interdisciplinary journal special edition on 'Opportunities and Challenges in an ice-free Arctic Ocean ‘for the The Geographical Journal (Impact Factor:3.288). This volume, along with the Nature Climate Change article, will act as the proof of concept and research excellence upon which we will apply for major research grants to establish a new Center -The Interdisciplinary Center for Arctic Research.


Dissemination and Next Level Funding for Center founding: Stage three will run concurrently with Stage One and Stage Two due to the fact that some funding bids will need to be developed and submitted in line with institutional and national deadlines.

We predict that once Stage Two is complete, we will be most competitive in the open funding market, yet given the strength of our individual profiles, this should not stop us from applying on a rolling basis. The primary bid will be to the SDU Climate Cluster for 10,000,000 DKK to establish our cross-faculty and Interdisciplinary Center for Arctic Research.

Additional funding bids will include, but are not limited to, Nova Nordisk, Villum Synergy, Carlsberg Conference Funding, NORDIC TALKS, DFF International Network Projects, Carlsberg Travel Grants, Marie Curie Doctoral Network Bid, and the NOS-HS Exploratory Workshop Call.

These three stages are epitomized by five milestones:

  • Milestone 1: Survey developed, and stakeholders identified
  • Milestone 2: Survey submitted to stakeholders and results synthesized
  • Milestone 3: Research note submitted
  • Milestone 4: Workshops undertaken with stakeholders & journal articles published on findings.
  • Milestone 5: Funding proposals are submitted, and when successful, the Interdisciplinary enter for Arctic Research is established.
Editing was completed: