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Antarctica and the Arctic: A polar primer for the new great game

Antarctica and the Arctic are the focus of global hunger for untapped resources – and global warming has helped drive the polar rush.

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An aquatic robot is pictured beneath Antarctic sea ice in this photo illustration. The new great game in Antarctica and the Arctic is the subject of the cover story in the Jan. 13, 2014 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Australian Antarctic Division/REUTERS

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Just after noon on Sept. 4, 2010, a squat, yellow-black cargo ship lumbered out of the Norwegian port of Kirkenes. Naked ridges of glacially scarred granite slid by on either side as the Nordic Barents motored toward the open sea with 41,000 tons of iron ore locked in her belly. It might have resembled a routine voyage to Western Europe. But the sense of normalcy vanished as the ship reached the mouth of the fiord, a geographic and economic crossroads at the extreme northern edge of Scandinavia.

Rather than proceeding forward toward Europe, the Barents swung slowly to the right – to the east. The ore in its hold was destined for smelters in China. To get there, the ship would do what few others have attempted: take a shortcut over the top of Asia, through 3,000 miles of Arctic seas haunted by drifting ice. It would be escorted by a nuclear-powered icebreaker from Russia.

Similar pioneering scenes are unfolding at the planet's opposite pole, the Antarctic. Each January at the height of the austral summer, fishing vessels venture south into waters that would be impenetrable if not for an accident of nature: Upwelling ocean water a couple of degrees above freezing creates a sliver of ice-free water along the Victoria Land coast, a keyhole that the fishing boats thread on their way to the world's southernmost waters. Reaching those waters, they unfurl several miles of cable with as many as 10,000 fishhooks into the sea. Just a few years ago, the fishing vessels didn't even come here; now, the fish they catch are served in white-tablecloth restaurants in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, eaten by people unaware of their exotic origin.

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