Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World

The war in Ukraine, decades-long tension between India and Pakistan, and the melting ice cap in Arctic, these are all issues discussed by Tim Marshall in his 2015 book, Prisoners of Geography. I picked up this book on the recommendation of my girlfriend’s friend living in Hong Kong on the days following Russian invasion in Ukraine this year, and found the author’s analysis on the need of Russia to keep Ukraine in its orbit to be prescient. Of course, this does not justify a non-provoked attack on the sovereign country, but it does help in understanding the geopolitical landscape of the region. Regardless of where you live and your political view, this book provides facts-based analysis on how the great geopolitical chess game in the world could unfold in the coming decades.

When writers seek to get to the heart of the bear they often use Winston Churchill’s famous observation of Russia, made in 1939: “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” but few go on to complete the sentence, which ends “but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Seven years later he used that key to unlock his version of the answer to the riddle, asserting, “I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.”

At the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Russians occupied the territory conquered from Germany in Central and Eastern Europe, some of which then became part of the USSR, as it increasingly began to resemble the old Russian empire. In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed by an association of European and North American states, for the defense of Europe and the North Atlantic against the danger of Soviet aggression. In response, most of the Communist states of Europe—under Russian leadership—formed the Warsaw Pact in 1955, a treaty for military defense and mutual aid. The pact was supposed to be made of iron, but with hindsight, by the early 1980s it was rusting, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 it crumbled to dust. President Putin is no fan of the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev. He blames him for undermining Russian security and has referred to the breakup of the former Soviet Union during the 1990s as a “major geopolitical disaster of the century.”

Russia as a concept dates back to the ninth century and a loose federation of East Slavic tribes known as Kievan Rus, which was based in Kiev and other towns along the Dnieper River, in what is now Ukraine. The Mongols, expanding their empire, continually attacked the region from the south and east, eventually overrunning it in the thirteenth century. The fledgling Russia then relocated northeast in and around the city of Moscow. This early Russia, known as the Grand Principality of Muscovy, was indefensible. There were no mountains, no deserts, and few rivers. In all directions lay flatland, and across the steppe to the south and east were the Mongols. The invader could advance at a place of his choosing, and there were few natural defensive positions to occupy.

Whatever its European credentials, Russia is not an Asian power for many reasons. Although 75 percent of its territory is in Asia, only 22 percent of its population lives there. Siberia may be Russia’s “treasure chest,” containing the majority of the mineral wealth, oil, and gas, but it is a harsh land, freezing for months on end, with vast forests (taiga), poor soil for farming, and large stretches of swampland. Only two railway networks run west to east—the Trans-Siberian and the Baikal-Amur Mainline. There are few transport routes leading north to south and so no easy way for Russia to project power southward into modern Mongolia or China: it lacks the manpower and supply lines to do so.

When the Soviet Union broke apart, it split into fifteen countries. Geography had its revenge on the ideology of the Soviets, and a more logical picture reappeared on the map, one where mountains, rivers, lakes, and seas delineate where people live, how they are separated from each other and, thus, how they developed different languages and customs. The exception to this rule are the “stans,” such as Tajikistan, whose borders were deliberately drawn by Stalin so as to weaken each state by ensuring it had large minorities of people from other states.

For the Russian foreign policy elite, membership in the EU is simply a stalking horse for membership in NATO, and for Russia, Ukrainian membership in NATO is a red line. Putin piled the pressure on Yanukovych, made him an offer he chose not to refuse, and the Ukrainian president scrambled out of the EU deal and made a pact with Moscow, thus sparking the protests that were eventually to overthrow him. The Germans and Americans had backed the opposition parties, with Berlin in particular seeing former world boxing champion turned politician Vitali Klitschko as their man. The West was pulling Ukraine intellectually and economically toward it while helping pro-Western Ukrainians push it westward by training and funding some of the democratic opposition groups. Street fighting erupted in Kiev and demonstrations across the country grew. In the east, crowds came out in support of the president. In the west of the country, in cities such as L’viv, which used to be in Poland, they were busy trying to rid themselves of any pro-Russian influence. By mid-February 2014, L’viv, and other urban areas, were no longer controlled by the government. Then on February 22, after dozens of deaths in Kiev, the president, fearing for his life, fled. Anti-Russian factions, some of which were pro-Western and some pro-fascist, took over the government. From that moment the die was cast. President Putin did not have much of a choice—he had to annex Crimea, which contained not only many Russian-speaking Ukrainians but most important the port of Sevastopol. This geographic imperative and the whole eastward movement of NATO is exactly what Putin had in mind when, in a speech about the annexation, he said “Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from. If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this.”

Crimea was part of Russia for two centuries before being granted to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine in 1954 by President Khrushchev at a time when it was envisaged that Soviet man would live forever and so be controlled by Moscow forever. Now that Ukraine was no longer Soviet, nor even pro-Russian—Putin knew the situation had to change. Did the Western diplomats know? If they didn’t, then they were unaware of rule A, lesson one, in “Diplomacy for Beginners”: When faced with what is considered an existential threat, a great power will use force. If they were aware, then they must have considered Putin’s annexation of Crimea a price worth paying for pulling Ukraine into modern Europe and the Western sphere of influence.

You could make the argument that President Putin did have a choice: he could have respected the territorial integrity of Ukraine. But, given that he was dealing with the geographic hand God has dealt Russia, this was never really an option. He would not be the man who “lost Crimea” and with it the only proper warm-water port his country had access to. No one rode to the rescue of Ukraine as it lost territory equivalent to the size of Belgium, or the state of Maryland. Ukraine and its neighbors knew a geographic truth: that unless you are in NATO, Moscow is near, and Washington, DC, is far away. For Russia this was an existential matter: they could not cope with losing Crimea, but the West could.

President Putin is a student of history. He appears to have learned the lessons of the Soviet years, in which Russia overstretched itself and was forced to contract. An overt assault on the Baltic States would likewise be overstretching and is unlikely, especially if NATO and its political masters ensure that Putin understands their signals. At the beginning of 2016, the Russian president sent his own signal. He changed the wording of Russia’s overall military strategy document and went further than the naval strategy paper of 2015. For the first time the US was named as an “external threat” to Russia.

Why would the Russians want Moldova? Because as the Carpathian Mountains curve around southwest to become the Transylvanian Alps, to the southeast is a plain leading down to the Black Sea. That plain can also be thought of as a flat corridor into Russia, and just as the Russians would prefer to control the North European Plain at its narrow point in Poland, so they would like to control the plain by the Black Sea—also known as Moldova—in the region formerly known as Bessarabia.

Russia’s most powerful weapons now, leaving to one side nuclear missiles, are not the Russian army and air force, but gas and oil. Russia is second only to the United States as the world’s biggest supplier of natural gas, and of course it uses this power to its advantage. The better your relations with Russia, the less you pay for energy; for example, Finland gets a better deal than the Baltic States. This policy has been used so aggressively, and Russia has such a hold over Europe’s energy needs that moves are afoot to blunt its impact. Many countries in Europe are attempting to wean themselves off their dependency on Russian energy, not via alternative pipelines from less aggressive countries but by building ports.

Washington is already approving licenses for export facilities, and Europe is beginning a long-term project to build more LNG terminals. Poland and Lithuania are constructing LNG terminals; other countries such as the Czech Republic want to build pipelines connecting to those terminals, knowing they could then benefit not just from American liquefied gas, but also supplies from North Africa and the Middle East. The Kremlin would no longer be able to turn the taps off. The Russians, seeing the long-term danger, point out that piped gas is cheaper than LNG, and President Putin, with a What did I ever do wrong? expression on his face, says that Europe already has a reliable and cheaper source of gas coming from his country. LNG is unlikely to completely replace Russian gas, but it will strengthen what is a weak European hand in both price negotiation and foreign policy. To prepare for a potential reduction in revenue, Russia is planning pipelines heading southeast and hopes to increase sales to China.

If China did not control Tibet, it would always be possible that India might attempt to do so. This would give India the commanding heights of the Tibetan Plateau and a base from which to push into the Chinese heartland, as well as control of the Tibetan sources of three of China’s great rivers, the Yellow, Yangtze, and Mekong, which is why Tibet is known as “China’s Water Tower.” China, a country with approximately the same volume of water usage as the United States, but with a population five times as large, will clearly not allow that. It matters not whether India wants to cut off China’s river supply, only that it would have the power to do so. For centuries China has tried to ensure that it could never happen. The actor Richard Gere and the Free Tibet movement will continue to speak out against the injustices of the occupation, and now settlement, of Tibet by Han Chinese; but in a battle between the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan independence movement, Hollywood stars, and the Chinese Communist Party—which rules the world’s second-largest economy—there is going to be only one winner. When Westerners, be they Mr. Gere or President Obama, talk about Tibet, the Chinese find it deeply irritating. Not dangerous, not subversive—just irritating. They see it not through the prism of human rights, but that of geopolitical security, and can only believe that the Westerners are trying to undermine their security. However, Chinese security has not been undermined and it will not be, even if there are further uprisings against the Han. Demographics and geopolitics oppose Tibetan independence.

There was, is, and always will be trouble in Xinjiang. The Uighurs have twice declared an independent state of “East Turkestan,” in the 1930s and 1940s. They watched the collapse of the Russian Empire result in their former Soviet neighbors in the stans becoming sovereign states, were inspired by the Tibetan independence movement, and many are now again calling to break away from China. Interethnic rioting erupted in 2009, leading to more than two hundred deaths. Beijing responded in three ways: it ruthlessly suppressed dissent, it poured money into the region, and it continued to pour in Han Chinese workers. For China, Xinjiang is too strategically important to allow an independence movement to get off the ground: it not only borders eight countries, thus buffering the heartland, but it also has oil, and is home to China’s nuclear weapons testing sites. The territory is also key to the Chinese economic strategy of “One Belt, One Road.”

There are similar reasons for the party’s resistance to democracy and individual rights. If the population were to be given a free vote, the unity of the Han might begin to crack or, more likely, the countryside and urban areas would come into conflict. That in turn would embolden the people of the buffer zones, further weakening China. It is only a century since the most recent humiliation of the rape of China by foreign powers; for Beijing, unity and economic progress are priorities well ahead of democratic principles. The Chinese look at society very differently from the West. Western thought is infused with the rights of the individual; Chinese thought prizes the collective above the individual. What the West thinks of as the rights of man, the Chinese leadership thinks of as dangerous theories endangering the majority, and much of the population accepts, at the least, that the extended family comes before the individual.

America is committed to defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. However, if Taiwan declares full independence from China, which China would consider an act of war, the United States is not to come to its rescue, as the declaration would be considered provocative.

There are 1.4 billion reasons why China may succeed, and 1.4 billion reasons why it may not surpass America as the greatest power in the world. A great depression such as in the 1930s could set it back decades. China has locked itself into the global economy. If we don’t buy, they don’t make. And if they don’t make, there will be mass unemployment. If there is mass and long-term unemployment, in an age when the Chinese are a people packed into urban areas, the inevitable social unrest could be—like everything else in modern China—on a scale hitherto unseen.

In the twenty-first century, Mexico poses no territorial threat to the United States, although its proximity causes America problems, as it feeds its northern neighbor’s appetite for illegal labor and drugs. In 1821 that was different. Mexico controlled land all the way up to Northern California, which the United States could live with, but it also stretched out east, including what is now Texas, which, then as now, borders Louisiana. Mexico’s population at the time was 6.2 million, the United States’s 9.6 million. The US army may have been able to see off the mighty British, but they had been fighting three thousand miles from home with supply lines across an ocean. The Mexicans were next door. Quietly, Washington, DC, encouraged Americans, and new arrivals, to begin to settle on both sides of the US–Mexican border. Waves of immigrants came and spread west and southwest. There was little chance of them putting down roots in the region we now know as modern Mexico, thus assimilating, and boosting, the population numbers there. Mexico is not blessed in the American way. It has poor-quality agricultural land, no river system to use for transport, and was wholly undemocratic, with new arrivals having little chance of ever being granted land. While the infiltration of Texas was going on, Washington, DC, issued the Monroe Doctrine (named after President James Monroe) in 1823, which boiled down to warning the European powers that they could no longer seek land in the Western Hemisphere, and that if they lost any parts of their existing territory they could not reclaim them. Or else.

Hence, we will see the United States increasingly investing time and money in East Asia to establish its presence and intentions in the region. For example, in Northern Australia the Americans have set up a base for the US Marine Corps. But in order to exert real influence they may also have to invest in limited military action to reassure their allies that they will come to their rescue in the event of hostilities. For example, if China begins shelling a Japanese destroyer and it looks as if they might take further military action, the US Navy may have to fire warning shots toward the Chinese navy, or even fire directly, to signal that it is willing to go to war over the incident. Equally, when North Korea fires at South Korea, the South fires back, but currently the United States does not. Instead, it puts forces on alert in a public manner to send a signal. If the situation escalated it would then fire warning shots at a North Korean target, and finally, direct shots. It’s a way of escalating without declaring war—and this is when things get dangerous.

The German nation state, despite being less than 150 years old, is now Europe’s indispensable power. In economic affairs it is unrivaled; it speaks quietly but carries a large euro-shaped stick, and the Continent listens. However, on global foreign policy it simply speaks quietly, sometimes not at all, and has an aversion to sticks. The shadow of the Second World War still hangs over Germany. The Americans, and eventually the West Europeans, were willing to accept German rearmament due to the Soviet threat, but Germany rearmed almost reluctantly and has been loath to use its military strength. It played a walk-on part in Kosovo and Afghanistan, but chose to sit out the Libya conflict. Its most serious diplomatic foray into a noneconomic crisis has been in Ukraine, which tells us a lot about where Germany is now looking. The Germans were involved in the machinations that overthrew Ukraine’s President Yanukovych in 2014 and they were sharply critical of Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea. However, mindful of the gas pipelines, Berlin was noticeably more restrained in its criticism and support for sanctions than, for example, the UK, which is far less reliant on Russian energy. Through the EU and NATO, Germany is anchored in Western Europe, but in stormy weather anchors can slip, and Berlin is geographically situated to shift the focus of its attention east if required and forge much closer ties with Moscow.

Europe’s traditional white population is graying. However, population projections, of an inverted pyramid, with older people at the top and few people to look after them or pay taxes, have not made a dent in the strength of anti-immigrant feeling in what was previously the indigenous population as it sees the world in which it grew up change rapidly. This demographic change is in turn having an effect on the foreign policy of nation states, particularly toward the Middle East. On issues such as the Iraq War, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, many European governments must, at the very least, take into account the feelings of their Muslim citizens when formulating policy. The characters and domestic social norms of the European countries are also impacted. Debates about women’s rights and the veiling of women, blasphemy laws, freedom of speech, and many other issues have all been influenced by the presence of large numbers of Muslims in Europe’s urban areas. Voltaire’s maxim that he would defend to the death the right of a person to say something, even if he found it offensive, was once taken as a given. Now, despite many people having been killed because what they said was insulting, the debate has shifted. It is not uncommon to hear the idea that perhaps insulting religion should be beyond the pale, possibly even made illegal.

Africa’s head start in our mutual story did allow it more time to develop something else that to this day holds it back: a virulent set of diseases, such as malaria and yellow fever, brought on by the heat and now complicated by crowded living conditions and poor health-care infrastructure. This is true of other regions—the subcontinent and South America, for example—but sub-Saharan Africa has been especially hard-hit, for example by HIV, and has a particular problem because of the prevalence of the mosquito and the tsetse fly.

Despite having fought five wars with Israel, the country Egypt is most likely to come into conflict with next is Ethiopia, and the issue is the Nile. Two of the continent’s oldest countries, with the largest armies, may come to blows over the region’s major source of water. The Blue Nile, which begins in Ethiopia, and the White Nile meet in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, before flowing through the Nubian Desert and into Egypt. By this point the majority of the water is from the Blue Nile. Ethiopia is sometimes called Africa’s water tower, due to its high elevation, and has more than twenty dams fed by the rainfall in its highlands. In 2011, Addis Ababa announced a joint project with China to build a massive hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile near the Sudanese border called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, scheduled to be finished by 2020. The dam will be used to create electricity, and the flow to Egypt should continue; but in theory the dam could also hold a year’s worth of water, and completion of the project would give Ethiopia the potential to hold the water for its own use, thus drastically reducing the flow into Egypt. As things stand, Egypt has a more powerful military, but that is slowly changing, and Ethiopia, a country of 96 million people, is a growing power. Cairo knows this, and also that, once the dam is built, destroying it would create a flooding catastrophe in both Ethiopia and Sudan. However, at the moment it does not have a casus belli to strike before completion, and despite the fact that a cabinet minister was recently caught on microphone recommending bombing, the next few years are more likely to see intense negotiations, with Egypt wanting cast-iron guarantees that the flow will never be stopped. Water wars are considered to be among the imminent conflicts this century, and this is one to watch.

There is a new scramble for Africa in this century, but this time it is two-pronged. There are the well-publicized outside interests, and meddling, in the competition for resources, but there is also the “scramble within” and South Africa intends to scramble fastest and farthest.

A dusty little town called Amman became the capital of Transjordan, and when the British went home in 1948 the country’s name changed to Jordan. But the Hashemites were not from the Amman area: they were originally part of the powerful Qureshi tribe from the Mecca region, and the original inhabitants were mostly Bedouin. The majority of the population is now Palestinian: when the Israelis occupied the West Bank in 1967, many Palestinians fled to Jordan, which was the only Arab state to grant them citizenship. We now have a situation where the majority of Jordan’s 6.5 million citizens are Palestinian, many of whom do not regard themselves as loyal subjects of the current Hashemite ruler, King Abdullah. Added to this problem are the one million Iraqi and Syrian refugees the country has also taken in who are putting a huge strain on its extremely limited resources.

Groups such as al-Qaeda and, more recently, the Islamic State have garnered what support they have partially because of the humiliation caused by colonialism and then the failure of pan-Arab nationalism—and to an extent the Arab nation state. Arab leaders have failed to deliver prosperity or freedom, and the siren call of Islamism, which promises to solve all problems, has proved attractive to many in a region marked by a toxic mix of piety, unemployment, and repression. The Islamists hark back to a golden age when Islam ruled an empire and was at the cutting edge of technology, art, medicine, and government. They have helped bring to the surface the ancient suspicions of “the other” throughout the Middle East.

For millennia the Jews had lived in what used to be called Israel, but the ravages of history had dispersed them across the globe. Israel remained for them the “promised land,” and Jerusalem, in particular, was sacred ground. However, by 1948 Arab Muslims and Christians had been a clear majority in the land for more than a thousand years. In the twentieth century, with the introduction of the Mandate for Palestine, the Jewish movement to join their minority co-religionists grew, and, propelled by the pogroms in Eastern Europe, more and more Jews began to settle there. The British looked favorably on the creation of a “Jewish homeland” in Palestine and allowed Jews to move there and buy land from the Arabs. After the Second World War and the Holocaust, Jews tried to get to Palestine in even greater numbers. Tensions between Jews and non-Jews reached the boiling point, and an exhausted Britain handed over the problem to the United Nations in 1948, which voted to partition the region into two countries. The Jews agreed, the Arabs said no. The outcome was war, which created the first wave of Palestinian refugees fleeing the area and Jewish refugees coming in from across the Middle East.

The mountainous terrain of Iran means that it is difficult to create an interconnected economy and that it has many minority groups each with keenly defined characteristics. Khuzestan, for example, is ethnically majority Arab, and elsewhere there are Kurds, Azeri, Turkmen, and Georgians, among others. At most, 60 percent of the country speaks Farsi, the language of the dominant Persian majority. As a result of this diversity, Iran has traditionally centralized power and used force and a fearsome intelligence network to maintain internal stability. Tehran knows that no one is about to invade Iran, but also that hostile powers can use its minorities to try and stir dissent and thus endanger its Islamic revolution.

Baluchistan is of crucial importance: while it may contain only a small minority of Pakistan’s population, without it there is no Pakistan. It comprises almost 45 percent of the country and holds much of its natural gas and mineral wealth. Another source of income beckons with the proposed overland routes to bring Iranian and Caspian Sea oil up through Pakistan to China. The jewel in this particular crown is the coastal city of Gwadar. Many analysts believe this strategic asset was the Soviet Union’s long-term target when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979: Gwadar would have fulfilled Moscow’s long-held dream of a warm-water port. The Chinese have also been attracted by this jewel and invested billions of dollars in the region. A deep-water port was inaugurated in 2007 and the two countries are now working to link it to China. In the long run, China would like to use Pakistan as a land route for its energy needs. This would allow it to bypass the Strait of Malacca, which as we saw in chapter two is a choke point that could strangle Chinese economic growth.

If Pakistan had full control of Kashmir it would strengthen Islamabad’s foreign policy options and deny India opportunities. It would also help Pakistan’s water security. The Indus River originates in Himalayan Tibet, but passes through the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir before entering Pakistan and then running the length of the country and emptying into the Arabian Sea at Karachi. The Indus and its tributaries provide water to two-thirds of the country: without it the cotton industry and many other mainstays of Pakistan’s struggling economy would collapse. By a treaty that has been honored through all of their wars, India and Pakistan agreed to share the waters; but both populations are growing at an alarming rate, and global warming could diminish the water flow. Annexing all of Kashmir would secure Pakistan’s water supply. Given the stakes, neither side will let go; and until they agree on Kashmir the key to unlocking the hostility between them cannot be found. Kashmir looks destined to remain a place where a sporadic proxy war between Pakistani-trained fighters and the Indian army is conducted—a conflict that threatens to spill over into full-scale war with the inherent danger of the use of nuclear weapons.

Hence, geography has dictated that Pakistan will involve itself in Afghanistan, as will India. To thwart each other, each side seeks to mold the government of Afghanistan to its liking—or, to put it another way, each side wants Kabul to be an enemy of its enemy. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, India gave diplomatic support to Moscow, but Pakistan was quick to help the Americans and Saudis to arm, train, and pay for the mujahideen to fight the Red Army. Once the Soviets were beaten, Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, helped to create, and then back, the Afghan Taliban, which duly took over the country.

So the Taliban bled the British, bled the Americans, bled NATO, waited NATO out, and after thirteen years NATO went away. During this whole period, members of the highest levels of Pakistan’s establishment were playing a double game. America might have its strategy, but Pakistan knew what the Taliban knew: that one day the Americans would go away, and when they left, Pakistan’s foreign policy would still require a Pakistan-friendly government in Afghanistan. Factions within the Pakistan military and government had continued to give help to the Taliban, gambling that after NATO’s retreat the southern half of Afghanistan at the very least would revert to Taliban dominance, thus ensuring that Kabul would need to talk to Islamabad.

The problems that would be created by Korea imploding or exploding would be multiplied if it happened as a result of warfare. Many countries would be affected and they would have decisions to make. Even if China did not want to intervene during the fighting, it might decide it had to cross the border and secure the North to retain the buffer zone between it and the US forces. It might decide that a unified Korea, allied to the United States, which is allied to Japan, would be too much of a potential threat to allow.

Latin America is very fond of the word “hope.” We like to be called the “continent of hope” . . . This hope is like a promise of heaven, an IOU whose payment is always put off. It is put off until the next legislative campaign, until next year, until the next century. —Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate

The limitations of Latin America’s geography were compounded right from the beginning in the formation of its nation states. In the United States, once the land had been taken from its original inhabitants, much of it was sold or given away to small landholders; by contrast, in Latin America the Old World culture of powerful landowners and serfs was imposed, which led to inequality. On top of this, the European settlers introduced another geographical problem that to this day holds many countries back from developing their full potential: they stayed near the coasts, especially (as we saw in Africa) in regions where the interior was infested by mosquitoes and disease. Most of the countries’ biggest cities, often the capitals, were therefore near the coasts, and all roads from the interior were developed to connect to the capitals but not to one another.

The effects of the melting ice won’t just be felt in the Arctic: countries as far away as the Maldives, Bangladesh, and the Netherlands are at risk of increased flooding as the ice melts and sea levels rise. These ramifications are why the Arctic is a global, not just a regional, issue. As the ice melts and the tundra is exposed, two things are likely to happen to accelerate the process of the graying of the ice cap. Residue from the industrial work destined to take place will land on the snow and ice, further reducing the amount of heat-reflecting territory. The darker-colored land and open water will then absorb more heat than the ice and snow they replace, thus increasing the size of the darker territory. This is known as the albedo effect, and although there are negative aspects to it there are also positive ones: the warming tundra will allow significantly more natural-plant growth and agricultural crops to flourish, helping local populations as they seek new food sources.

The melting of the ice cap already allows cargo ships to make the journey through the Northwest Passage in the Canadian archipelago for several summer weeks a year, thus cutting at least a week from the transit time from Europe to China. The first cargo ship not to be escorted by an icebreaker went through in 2014. The Nunavik carried twenty-three thousand tons of nickel ore from Canada to China. The polar route was 40 percent shorter and used deeper waters than if it had gone through the Panama Canal. This allowed the ship to carry more cargo, save tens of thousands of dollars in fuel costs, and reduced the ship’s greenhouse emissions by 1,300 metric tons. By 2040, the route is expected to be open for up to two months each year, transforming trade links across the High North and causing knock-on effects as far away as Egypt and Panama in terms of the revenues they enjoy from the Suez and Panama Canals.


About Journeyman

A global macro analyst with over four years experience in the financial market, the author began his career as an equity analyst before transitioning to macro research focusing on Emerging Markets at a well-known independent research firm. He read voraciously, spending most of his free time following The Economist magazine and reading topics on finance and self-improvement. When off duty, he works part-time for Getty Images, taking pictures from all over the globe. To date, he has over 1200 pictures over 35 countries being sold through the company.
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1 Response to Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World

  1. Russia needs to realize that when people and courtiers are threatened they have the right to and will seek to protect themselves. You can’t threaten and oppress folks into being our friend. Russia seems to want to recreate the failures of the Warsaw Pact.

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