Skip to main content

Science: Natural Resources of the Arctic Circle Revealed


Southward view along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline of the Brooks Range, north-central ka. Rocks in the foreground are Lower Cretaceous conglomerate and sandstone beds of nonmarine origin, exposed on the Atigun syncline about 200 km south of Prudhoe Bay. The pipeline and parallel Dalton highway (pipeline "haul road") traverse the valley and a pipeline pump station is visible in the distance.
[Image courtesy of David W. Houseknecht, U.S. Geological Survey]

Following an assessment of natural resources north of the Arctic Circle, researchers say that a full 30% of the world's undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its undiscovered oil could be found there.

The oil estimate is relatively small compared to the known reserves in major petroleum exporting countries, so researchers do not anticipate a major shift in the world's oil trade. However, they do expect the location and volume of predicted natural gas reserves inside the Arctic Circle to primarily benefit Russia.

These findings are from the first detailed, peer-reviewed, and geologically-based assessment of natural resources in that region.

Hear Robert Frederick, host of Science Podcast, interview research author Don Gautier.

Dr. Donald Gautier from the U.S. Geological Survey, along with colleagues from the Southwest Statistical Consulting in Cortez, Colorado and the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, detail their findings in the 29 May issue of the journal Science.

"The work is important to several audiences, including the Arctic nations—the U.S., Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, and Russia—whose economic future may very well depend upon the results of petroleum exploration and related commerce, and to those concerned about the possible environmental consequences of future oil and gas development in the Arctic," Gautier said in an email interview. "The paper is also of interest to energy companies and economists who are wondering about future exploration in a world where opportunities are becoming ever more restricted."

The researchers' results suggest that the majority of undiscovered oil will be found underwater, on continental shelves, and in areas of settled territorial claims or bilateral treaties—not in international waters. They predict that this undiscovered oil might account for almost 4% of the world's remaining recoverable oil resources.


Map of the Arctic Circle
View a larger version of this image
[Public domain image courtesy of the CIA Factbook]

"This suggests that undiscovered oil and gas resources will not be the primary driver for claims under the Law of the Sea treaty," wrote Gautier. "But rather concerns of territorial sovereignty, rights to transportation, and non-petroleum commodities of various kinds."

Still, discoveries of these natural resources could have economic significance to the Arctic nations. The amounts of undiscovered natural gas—predicted to be three times the amount of undiscovered oil—seems to be heavily concentrated in Russian territory, particularly in the South Kara Sea and the eastern Barents Sea. This prediction is expected to reinforce the already-strong strategic resource position of that country, the researchers say.

They also say that the most likely place for oil in the Arctic is offshore northern Alaska, in the Chukchi Sea, but further research will be needed to clarify the impact of this natural resource on the U.S. economy.

"The Arctic is an area of very sparse data, and new information gathered in the future will certainly provide additional insights into the resource future of the northern latitudes," Gautier concludes.


Brandon Bryn

Related Scientific Disciplines