As the level of ice in the Arctic hits new lows, unexplored fields of oil and gas draw the attention of far-flung gas guzzlers. Even journalists consider its geopolitical implications... but where are the local communities in the picture? Where are the Inuits?

At the end of a debate on assessing the risks of a melting Arctic at the recent Summit by The Economist in Oslo, panelists were asked to take a shot at the number of years for it to become ice free.

While people said they didn’t know, it was just a guess, and it was totally unscientific to do this, guesstimates ranged from ten years to less than thirty years. The Economist’s first Arctic Summit tended to brush aside environmental concerns raised by some of the speakers and its political editor James Astill clearly set the tone at the outset when he said there is no question of the Arctic being conserved as a giant wilderness.

With very little being heard at the summit from indigenous communities about the perceived changes in their region, an Italian journalist was moved to ask if the indigenous people of the Arctic had melted away along with the ice in the region.

Aqqaluk Lynge chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council represented the indigenous communities of the Arctic who are faced with tumultuous changes in the region if the ice melts completely. His concerns centred on the influx of people for work into a delicate ecosystem and the survival of his community, apart from environmental impacts.

Astill feels the melting ice is inevitable and his articles in The Economist after a four month trip last year speaking to ‘hundreds of Arctic specialists, people and politicians’ came just before the sea ice melted to a new low. At the Summit he said by way of introduction that the sea ice melt had led to 46 vessels traversing the northern sea route, up from two.

“We simply do not know how this fast changing Arctic story is going to unfold.” When questions were raised about who was going to consume the undiscovered oil and gas reserves if they were exploited, Mr Astill was quick to respond that he was in India recently and that country could well be one of the consumers.

India’s interests in the region, it has asked for observer status on the Arctic Council, (a decision could be taken by May this year), could rival that of China’s which means business. The Polar Research Institute of China has already prepared complex calculations about how business and trade will be boosted by a new Arctic sea route. It also completed a three month voyage with an ice breaker to prove its point.

China makes no bones about its keen interest in the area and it is doing its homework. The view from business and shipping communities is that the Arctic has been a region of opportunity and some of them like DNV, are talking of managing risks and conducting programs to boost the capacity for the Arctic region.

Remoteness and harshness of the region may well be a thing of the past. “Some of the debate is based on consequences but we need to bring in probability as well,” says a top executive of DNV, a ‘premium’ sponsor of the summit.

While China is eyeing the new Arctic sea route and fossil fuel reserves, the Russians are worried about the melting ice opening up its boundaries. It is quite keen on militarising the area to some extent, if only to protect the oil installations from terrorist strikes.

But some scientists are not for exploring the fossil fuel in the region. Instead they feel that concentration should be on more research. There is also the issue of a possible oil spill. The sea ice is not only melting but it is also getting thinner.

There is increasing evidence to show that loss of ice is disturbing weather patterns and the planetary waves, says Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of the physics of oceans at Potsdam University. There is a real change in the planetary waves that is behind the extreme events in Europe and USA.

Changes in the Arctic region were happening at a dizzying pace and it is hard to keep up. Astill asks why this is happening and if there is a profound lack of data. While the entire global research on climate change in underfunded, scientists say that ice modelling is not getting as much support as atmospheric modelling.

So while one lot is looking at the opening up of shorter sea routes through the Arctic, boost in trade and business, oil and gas explorations, apart from minerals and even uranium, the real worries seem to lie elsewhere. The impact of a totally ice free Arctic could be a lot worse than we imagine and by the time we find out it could be too late for action.