Upside to global warming: 'New North' will thrive

Laurence Smith
Laurence Smith

Move over, Sunbelt. The New North is coming through, a UCLA geographer predicts in a new book.

As worldwide population increases by 40 percent over the next 40 years, sparsely populated Canada, Scandinavia, Russia and the northern United States will become formidable economic powers and migration magnets, Laurence C. Smith writes in "The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future" (Dutton Books), scheduled for publication Sept. 23.

While on the environment, global warming will liberate a treasure trove of oil, gas, water and other natural resources previously locked in the frozen north, enriching residents and attracting newcomers, according to Smith. And these resources will pour from northern rim countries — or NORCs, as Smith calls them — precisely at a time when natural resources elsewhere are becoming critically depleted, making them all the more valuable.

"In many ways, the New North is well positioned for the coming century even as its unique ecosystem is threatened by the linked forces of hydrocarbon development and amplified climate change," writes Smith, a UCLA professor of geography and of Earth and space sciences.

Other tantalizing predictions:

• New shipping lanes will open during the summer in the Arctic, allowing Europe to realize its 500-year-old dream of direct trade between the Atlantic and the Far East, and resulting in new access to and economic development in the north.

• Oil resources in Canada will be second only to those in Saudi Arabia, and the country's population will swell by more than 30 percent, a growth rate rivaling India's and six times faster than China's.

• NORCs will be among the few place on Earth where crop production will likely increase due to climate change.

• NORCs collectively will constitute the fourth largest economy in the world, behind the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), the European Union and the United States.

• NORCs will become the envy of the world for their reserves of fresh water, which may be sold and transported to other regions.

An Arctic scientist who has consistently sounded alarms about the approach of global warming, Smith is best known for determining the role of climate change in the disappearance of more than a thousand Arctic lakes over the last quarter of the 20th century. Discover magazine ranked Smith's finding among the top 100 scientific discoveries of 2005.

The geographer also has conducted research on the role of greenhouse gases in precipitating the end of the last Ice Age some 9,000 years ago.

Armed with a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, Smith set out in 2006 on a 15-month tour to assess the toll of global warming on the northern rim, especially among such indigenous peoples as Canada's Inuit and Scandinavia's Sami. He interviewed seal hunters, reindeer herders, fishermen, miners, farmers, oil company executives, biologists, climatologists, oceanographers, indigenous elders, restaurant operators, small-town mayors and big-time federal officials. But the scientist uncovered more than he expected.

"I kept badgering people for stories about climate change," Smith said. "They'd sigh and oblige me, but then say, 'There's also this oil plant going up behind me' or 'All these Filipino immigrants are pouring in.' Within about two months, I realized there is a lot more going on up there besides climate change. Climate change is a critical threat to many people, but it isn't the sole development in their lives."

In fact, climate change is only one of four "global forces" Smith analyzes in the book. He also addresses the anticipated toll worldwide of a growing and aging population, dwindling natural resources at a time of mounting demand, and increasing globalism and economic integration.

"I went up there to write a book about climate change," Smith said. "I came out of it writing about the world and the big pressures it faces."

Not surprisingly, Smith predicts that China will replace the U.S. as the country with the strongest economy by 2050. The U.S. will drop to second place, followed by India, he said. Meanwhile, megacities will proliferate, increasing from 19 today to perhaps 27 by 2025.

According to Smith, in the best-case scenario, climate change can be expected to raise temperatures an average of 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit by century's end, a large number greater than the difference between a record cold and a record hot year in New York. At worst, temperatures will rise twice as much. And don't expect relief from wind, solar and hydrogen technologies, he warns. By 2050, they still won't satisfy global energy needs. In fact, growing water shortages may force societies to choose dirtier power sources, such as coal, over cleaner, water-intensive sources like hydropower.

Smith paints a picture of wet regions of the globe getting wetter, parched regions becoming drier and increasingly erratic and dangerous weather events.

As a result of these and other threats, wildlife will suffer the greatest rate of extinction since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, he writes. Climate change will push wildlife that manage to survive northward and into higher elevations, with increasing hybridization between northern and southern species.

And human population and prosperity trajectories presents the greatest threat of all, Smith says. The demand for water in North Africa, the Near East and South Asia is already overtaking supply, and the situation will only get worse. In fact, worldwide water resources will become so precious that they will be tracked from outer space, possibly within the next decade.

Hardest hit by the changes, Smith predicts, will be megacities in the developing world, which are already struggling to accommodate an influx of rural migrants, "despite being hell on Earth." But not so in the New North. New prosperity awaits communities that lie north of the 45th parallel as diminishes winter's severity and the world's energy appetite increasingly turns to natural gas and unconventional oil, he writes.

"In many ways, the stresses that will be very apparent in other parts of the world by 2050 — like coastal inundation, water scarcity, heat waves and violent cities — will be easing or unapparent in northern places," Smith said. "The cities that are rising in these NORC countries are amazingly globalized, livable and peaceful."

Cities expected to increase in size and prominence over the next 40 years include Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, Calgary, Edmonton, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Ottawa, Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Moscow, he writes.

"It's not that London or L.A. are going to become empty wastelands," Smith said. "Even in 2050, there will be far more people down here than in the north. But many northern places that are now marginal or not really thought much about will emerge as very nice places to be."

Of the 10 "ports of the future" cited by Smith, only three — Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, Canada's Churchill and Iceland's Reykjavik — will sound familiar. Future beneficiaries of increased Arctic traffic will also include Nuuk in Greenland; Hammerfest, Kirkenes and Tromsø in Norway; and Archangelsk, Dudinka and Murmansk in Russia.

Although they will be facing severe threats to their traditional culture, northern indigenous communities can be expected to share in the wealth, Smith predicts. In the northern U.S., Canada and Greenland, these societies are expected to trade harpoons for briefcases, as increasingly common self-determination agreements allow them to exploit natural resources just as climate change is making them more accessible.

"Northern aboriginal people don't like being portrayed as hapless victims of climate change," Smith said. "They want the power and resource revenues to save themselves, and at least in North America, it looks like they'll have it."

Research for the book in no way abated Smith's concern about the prospects of climate change, but it did leave him optimistic in a lot of ways.

"It's like the Louisiana Purchase of 1803," he said. "There's a new part of the world that's emerging, with vast continents and a harsh geographical gradient but also resource and immigration bonanzas. Humanity will increasingly look north in response to the four global pressures of rising population, resource demand, globalization and ."

Explore further

'Unprecedented' warming drives dramatic ecosystem shifts in North Atlantic

Citation: Upside to global warming: 'New North' will thrive (2010, September 6) retrieved 16 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Sep 06, 2010
How does the author come to the conclusion that technologies that will be availble by 2050 will NOT provide enough electricity via solar , hydrogen etc ?
According to many futurist and technologist energy concerns will be mute and void by this time.

Sep 06, 2010
It depends. My dad use to say "Oh in the future we will be able to eat whatever we want and take a pill to stay skinny/healthy". What I'm getting at is the future is what we make of it. I'm guilty of sitting on the side-lines wishing away. Don't think I'm here preaching. Someone told me once -paraphrase- "Good things happen when normal people put their hands in front of their eyes, reflect on their consciousness, and decide to start searching for solutions." For me I've focused on trying to use less stuff but that doesn't really solve the problem I suppose.

Sep 06, 2010
I would like to think that, but if you look at the world of today vs the world of 1950, they really aren't that different in the grand scheme of things. Picture aliens looking down on us in 1950 and now, what would they see? Cars, clothes, planes, TV, all still here, and not really so different than in 1950. Where are the flying cars that we were supposed to have by now? Where is the moon hotel? Technological advance is a tricky thing.

Sep 06, 2010
if you look at the world of today vs the world of 1950, they really aren't that different in the grand scheme of things

Most of the major advances of the first half of the 20th century were fueled in some way by war. Also, just because we don't have hover cars doesn't mean that the internet wasn't a huge breakthrough, not to mention the proliferation of communication technologies, the minitiarization of electronics, the advances in medicine, oh and... what was a computer like in 1950? right...

There have been a lot of advancements in the last 60 years, just because they weren't what people expected doesn't make them unimportant.

Sep 06, 2010
For as long as technology is developed and deployed on a for-profit basis, then the benefits of technology, for all the obvious reasons, will be unequally distributed, and only improve life on earth as a function of profitability.

I.T. is extraordinarily valuable, but, beyond it's usefulness computationally, it has done little to improve the lives of most of the people of the world, and has -in cases too numerous to adequately quantize- lead directly to the degradation of the living standard of many. All too often, technology's benefits are available to only those who can pay for them, or in other cases- avoid them.
As long as Profit remains the prime driver of socioeconomic policy and development, the problems that affect the world as a whole, and confront us on a daily basis with low- or high- grade threats to both humans and environment will remain largely unaddressed, as they have throughout recorded history.

Sep 06, 2010
Vancouver will be the next San Diego. Except we have no air conditioning.

Sep 06, 2010
The company First Solar has gotten solar down to 79 cents a watt. That is lower then the real cost of coal, nuclear, oil and natural gas. Emerging energy advances will neutralize non-renewable carbon fuels.

Sep 06, 2010
lots of oil but not much food when the wheat and corn fields to the south chance of growing much north of the Great Lakes where it's mostly exposed bed rock.

Sep 07, 2010
What about Southern Chile and Argentina? New Zealand? Or even West Antarctica? Such places may see increased development also.

Sep 07, 2010
In any event it's up to our species whether to collectively live sustainably and peacefully. I think this study skims the surface of a much broader picture, without really delving into the human mind, and the fundamental beliefs that govern our decisions and behaviors. I think this research would be much more interesting if it included how changes in awareness could completely change our future decisions. What if there was a global shift in mass consciousness, (in addition to pronounced climate change?). Studies about the future of civilization usually speculate as accurately as they can using 'conventional' thought and trends, leading to conventional outcomes, but don't place enough importance in changes in attitude, awareness.

Sep 07, 2010
How does the author come to the conclusion that technologies that will be available by 2050 will NOT provide enough electricity via solar, hydrogen etc?
Because the limitations are conceptual and physical. Hydrogen is like electricity in that it is not a source of power. Solar is a source of power of very low quality, less than 1350 Watts per square meter.

And that is solar power in 2010. You only reconfirm my orginal point.

Sep 07, 2010
To me debating about whether or not solar power will EVER be a significant contributor to the power needs of human civilization is like debating whether or not the sky is blue. It's a pointless waste of time.

The "believers" got their minds made up that a type I civilization will somehow meet it's staggering thirst for electricity with panels that cover the ground...what do you say to that?

Here's your run along and let the grown-ups talk?

Sep 07, 2010
How does the author come to the conclusion that technologies that will be availble by 2050 will NOT provide enough electricity via solar , hydrogen etc ?
According to many futurist and technologist energy concerns will be mute and void by this time.

I call it Venter's Paradigm.

Craig Venter was considered a madman because he stated we would sequence the entire human genome in 5 years as opposed to 15 at a cost of 3 million as opposed to 30 million. Venter was right and it was entirely due to his ability, and relatively deep knowledge within the specifics of the process and technology of genomics at the time that allowed him to make such wild proclamations.

So I agree with your stance. By 2050, many of these problems may no longer be problems.

Sep 13, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Sep 14, 2010
@Doug Huffman

Hello Sir,
I have to disagree with your assessment of solar as a low quality source of energy. My backyard in OC california is roughly 100m^2. That means 136.8kW fall on my backyard during the sunlight hours. If I take the hours of usable sun to be 6 hours/day I get 820.8kWhours of energy/ day. 820.8kWhours = 2,954,880,000 joules of energy = 22.72 gallons of gasoline/day. I use 1.5 gallons/ day driving around and around 30kWh=.83gallons gasoline running my home. Even with fairly low efficiency solar panels (10%) nearly my entire energy footprint can be resolved in a space the size of my backyard. Hello energy independence.

To continue the thought experiment, I live close to Mile Square Park. It takes up an area of roughly 1sq mile. 3.53GW of solar power fall on it every hour. 3.53GW*.30 for commercial conversion yields about 1GW recoverable. 1GW*6hours workable sun =6GW. 6GWhours/24 hours = 250MW average power output.

Sep 14, 2010
In 1 square mile with no need for nuclear engineers, nuclear fuel, fossil fuels, intensive maintenance requirements, mining, transportation, staff etc we can net 1/4 of a gigawatt. And if we want more we don't need to find new sources of solar fuel, or scout out new areas for solar installation. We just put up more panels. Anyplace we can erect a handful of panels we can pull down some power!

There is no greater source of energy available to man than the sun. At any given moment 89 PetaWatts of power land on earth's surface. That makes 2136 petaWatt hours/day. That is the energy equivalent of 16.5 billion gallons of gasoline raining down on earth every single day. Ooh rah.


Sep 14, 2010

What do you propose to meet humanity's energy needs? How will it scale up as earth's human population grows and as third world countries industrialize and demand access to the same technologies as the west? If your answer requires currently non-existent technology you may as well just say magic is gonna handle it so don't sweat it. Do the math, tell me whats wrong with it. I can be persuaded, I have numbers that suggest that solar is a viable option to power civilization. What are you proposing and what are the numbers that proposal is based on?

Sep 15, 2010
@ Brizzadizza:

You forgot to include the energy it took to manufacture your car, your house, your clothing, the energy it took to grow your food, the energy it takes to provide you with water and sewage, and the energy for your entertainment, energy to create the roads and bridges you drive on, street lights, education, ect., just to name a few things you left out. In truth, your example above probably only accounts for a tenth of your real energy consumption. I do agree that solar power will probably fill much of our future needs though.

@ Caliban:

Look up the word 'quantize'. You are using it wrong. The word you were looking for is 'quantify'. Quantize is a quantum physics term. :)

Sep 15, 2010
@ Caliban:

Look up the word 'quantize'. You are using it wrong. The word you were looking for is 'quantify'. Quantize is a quantum physics term. :)

Actually it isn't. It's a term that means "to remove an individual aspect from an invariant set of values."

For example you would attempt to "quantize" the human carbon output from the total carbon output of the planet. It's a term meant to constrain value.

Sep 15, 2010
@ Caliban:

Look up the word 'quantize'. You are using it wrong. The word you were looking for is 'quantify'. Quantize is a quantum physics term. :)

Actually it isn't. It's a term that means "to remove an individual aspect from an invariant set of values."

For example you would attempt to "quantize" the human carbon output from the total carbon output of the planet. It's a term meant to constrain value.


Thanks for saving me the trouble.

I know it sucks to to have what you believe to be a good criticism exploded so ignominiuosly, but just think of it as a "lesson learned". The curve is pretty steep here, but the reward is the opportunity to engage in spirited debate regarding a whole range of issues and concepts. It is inevitable that one collects a few lumps along the way...

C'est la Guerre!

Sep 16, 2010

here you go. I really don't care if you read it or not. I don't write the dictionaries, but I can read.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more