Siberia

Odds are you have never heard of the Ob River or of Novosibirsk. Perhaps you’ve seen them on a map and wondered. Well, the Ob is the Mississippi River of Siberia (well, one of three…but the Ob is the biggest). And Novosibirsk is the Chicago of Siberia, a thriving economic engine and cultural center, a million and a half people in the middle of a continent. You don’t know them well now. There’s been no need. Both city and waterway are about as isolated from America as any place on the planet can be. But your children and their children will know of them, the way people in Siberia have heard of Chicago. And they will know because the icecaps are melting and the Arctic Ocean will be navigable and interconnected with the rest of us. Now you fly in on a rickety Russian airliner. Or make the endless drive on the Trans-Siberian highway to get there to Novosibirsk, or take the Trans-Siberian Railway. Both are somewhat beat up. Novosibirsk is an island in the middle of the land, very difficult to get on or off. The open arctic will change all that. The open arctic will bring new railroads, improved highways, airliners that don’t scare you. Port cities draw infrastructure to them. Look at a map. Notice how all across the world there are railroads and highways and canals radiating out from ports. There is so much money to be made. Look at a map of the Great Lakes and all the cities on their shores. Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, Buffalo, and up the St Lawrence, Montreal are all major inland ports. Between them smaller port cities dot the shore. The Great Lakes Megalopolis is vast and economically powerful and helped to shape the modern world. Such is probably the future of Novosibirsk and all the other cities deep inside Siberia–Irkutsk, Kemerovo, Krasnoyarsk, Novokuznetsk, Omsk, Barnaul, Tomsk, Tyumen–that sit on the huge rivers drain the immense central Asian watershed into the far distant Arctic Ocean. Connected to the rest of the world by sea, the cities will thrive and grow and become powerful. What is still a string of czarist outposts will begin to come together as something not Russian at all, but Siberian. And for maybe the first time ever, a major civilization will arise from the Russian taiga. It will be a mix of Russian, Central Asian, Siberian and Chinese peoples. It will be exploiting a land that has barely been touched by human hands. It will have vast resources, and, being so new, will have few mistakes to undo (and many to make). And it will could just have the same mammoth impact on the world as the industrialization and economy and agriculture and resources and money and culture and ideas of the American Midwest had on the world. The Midwest was a blank canvas for American civilization. The natives (my wife’s family among them) were a tragic distraction who never had a chance. The genuine threat–slavery–was annihilated. With the end of the Civil War the Americans went crazy with innovation. Modern mass industry was perfected in the Midwest. Chicago was the template for all cities thereafter. Large scale agriculture, even modern ways of shopping (pre-internet) came out of the Mid West. Unlike almost everywhere else (including the U.S. south) there were no wars or revolutions in the Midwest to mess things up. And the place was so devoid of people that it was populated with millions of immigrants and emancipated slaves, all adding their own cultural DNA to the mix. The American heartland was a riot of ideas and invention and innovation and social experimentation. The people on the coasts laugh, and the people in the South are offended, but the nation we are today was created in the Midwest. It was a lab for everything new. Its industrial output helped to keep the fascists from winning WW2, its agricultural output fed Europe after the war. It was an economic powerhouse on a scale never seen before on the planet. Indeed. a sizable chunk of the CO2 that is melting the polar icecaps today originated in the American Midwest. Which, ironically enough, is what is making this Siberian powerhouse possible. What the American midwest was for a century Siberia could be for new century. It might be a lab for everything new. All because of global warming. All because the ice is melting. The earth will be hotter and life will probably be harder and the world will be more interconnected than it has ever been. And the very concept of east vs west–which is how we see the world now–will become obsolete. What was east or west will now be to the north and then south, across an Arctic Ocean shimmering beautifully in the midnight sun.

Novosibirsk, two million people as far away from anything as two million people can be, for now anyway.

Novosibirsk, two million people as far away from anything as two million people can be, for now anyway.

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Arctic blue

Wow, just read another article about the end of the polar ice cap. It’s amazing to think that the Arctic Ocean is fast becoming navigable. It’s not an if anymore, but a when. Almost daily there are reports in the news and articles in the press about warming air and warming seas. This article in the Atlantic, Huge Waves in the Arctic Demonstrate Ice Loss—and Aggravate It, explains how enormous waves in the arctic ocean, formed in the newly open water and stirred by the increasing winds that come with open water, melt the ice cap even more, creating more open water, more winds, then more open water, more winds, more open water…. It’s a process we can actually see, in real time. It’s nothing like the invisible CO2 build up, or the incremental (if inexorable) temperature rises. These are just great oceanic swells in an open ocean. Beautiful blue water for miles. Broken bits of icebergs floating, melting. The waves slosh and wash and crash against the ice pack, wearing it down, breaking it up, melting it away. White ice becomes beautiful blue water. Inclement weather kicks up wind, as inclement weather does, just like winds kick up on a real unfrozen ocean, an ocean you can’t walk on this side of Jesus, an ocean that won’t freeze you in solid, trapped, doomed. An ocean that a hard shelled boat, not necessarily an icebreaker even, just not too flimsy, can move through, transporting goods or people or resources along the Northern Sea Route.

That’s what they call the open water which lies year round along the Siberian Arctic coast, the Northern Sea Route. Freighters ply the route now, from Europe to the Far East, where once they crossed the Indian Ocean. It’s a third less distance (and no pirates). There’s no dust, they say, and no smog. The water is a deep blue and the ice floating by a range of gorgeous pastels. New sea life, abhorring a vacuum, has moved in, or begun staying year round. It’s a brand new world. The ancient arctic creatures cling to shore. The arctic foxes lose their snow white sheen. On shore the mosquitos and black flies are in clouds thicker than ever. Roads and villages disappear into liquefying permafrost, and great holes appear, unexplained. Travel overland is treacherous. Offshore, though, a few miles beyond the land, the water is blue and the going smooth and lovely and profitable.

But thinking beyond, two or three decades from now, merchant ships will no longer be hugging the Siberian coast like ancient galleys followed the Mediterranean coast, terrified of storms. Entire new trade routes will open up, intercontinental routes. Perhaps within a generation, and definitely within two, you could travel from Chicago in the middle of North America to Novosibirsk in the middle of Asia on a seagoing vessel. You’d leave Chicago and sail though various Great Lakes and up the St. Lawrence and into the Atlantic between Labrador and Greenland. A larger vessel then would continue on a northeasterly course, rounding Greenland and heading toward Siberia by passing north of Iceland and south of Svalbard. A smaller vessel, though, could slip west into a blue water passage through Nunavut (née Northwest Territories) that leads to other passages between the islands in the Canadian Arctic and follow the fishing fleets and tramp steamers and cruise ships past Ellesmere Island and into the open Arctic Ocean. What a sight that will be, a grand vista of the deepest blue. Dolphins, new to these waters, will splash along side. Whales will loll and spout. The ocean waters, free of year round ice and warmed and lit by the sun, will explode with plankton, krill and pelagic fish. The glorious summer light never turns to darkness over the entire trans-oceanic trek, and perhaps your ship will take you over the Pole itself, where northward turns instantly southward. Then on the far side of the Arctic Ocean you’ll enter the Kara Sea, within sight of Siberia, then continue into the narrow gulf that is the largest riverine estuary in the world, hundreds of miles long, beginning in tundra and ending deep in the taiga. There you’d enter the mouth of the Ob River and fresh water. The final leg is southbound up the Ob, surrounded by the vast Siberian forests that fade after a thousand miles into endless, treeless steppe. The nights lengthen, the moon and stars reappear. Finally, after two thousand miles on the river you dock at the sprawling metropolis of Novosibirsk. A journey entirely by water from the center of one immense continent into the center of an even more immense continent by way of an ocean that was once icebound and impassable.

This isn’t a possible future. It’s not science fiction. It is the future. And while we dread the environmental catastrophe that accompanies it, the mass extinctions and desertification and struggles for water towards the equator, there are young entrepreneurs right now in Siberia and Greenland and struggling Inuit communities dreaming about all of this. Dreaming of new ports and new cities and new trade routes. A few of these dreamers will die fabulously wealthy old men, and their walls will be adorned with pictures of polar bears and igloos and glaciers and icebergs, and they’ll tell their grandkids stories of the old days, when you could walk all the way to the North Pole. Their grandkids will look across all that blue water and not believe a word of it.

Northern sea route, 2013.

Northern sea route, 2013.