Joules of the Arctic

Harvard GSD Research Studio led by Neil Brenner

Urban Theory Lab


The Arctic is undergoing a rapid and detrimental change. Increased accessibility as a result of diminishing sea ice in combination with dynamics of the global oil industry have transformed the region from a frontier of primarily scientific inquiry into a site of contested international politics.


In opposition to common conception, the transformations that are taking place are not mere consequences of climate change. Rather, these transformations are direct results of almost 50 years of slow regulatory restructuring and implementation of legal architecture inflicted by the fluctuating price of oil. The natural resources of the region have been the critical component in the energy strategies of the Arctic countries since the early 1970s. Multiple shifts within the global oil market have elevated the Arctic as a critical hydrocarbon province, only to marginalize it later when the oil shocks declined.


In 2008, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) issued a highly publicized (and misreported) hydrocarbon assessment of the Arctic indicating that as much as 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil resources and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas resources lie in the region. Anxious to secure access to undiscovered hydrocarbon resources, Arctic countries are maintaining a strategic presence in the high north. While it is fair to say that the region is free of military conflict, the stakeholders are showing increasingly aggressive territorial attitudes.