With a harsh climate, locally humid in the vicinity of the Pacific Ocean, and generally cold, we will find Alaska. This territory is one of the 50 states that make up the United States of America, in the northwest extreme of the American continent.
It has 1,717,854 km² and more than 700,000 inhabitants, almost all located on the south coast. Mount Denali (formerly known as McKinley) is the highest point in US territory at 6,187 m, which crowns the northern end of the Rocky Mountains, with the Alaskan Range, the McKenzie Mountains, and the Brooks Range.
Brief history of Alaska
The first settlers of Alaska were nomads who arrived from Asia via the Bering Bridge during the Würm Glaciation (known as Wisconsin Glaciation in America), and settled for millennia in their valleys and coasts, until the arrival of the Europeans in the eighteenth century.
It was the expeditionary Vitus Bering, in the service of the Russian Navy, who spied the shores of Alaskan territory, but the first European to anchor in his fiords was Aleksei Chirikov in 1741, in the place we now know as the city of Sitka. This discovery led to the colonization of Alaska by Russia, creating various settlements along its shores.
However, the Russians were not the only explorers of the North Pacific. The Spaniards claimed their rights on the west coast of North America, relying on the Bula menor Inter caetera of 1493, signed by Pope Alexander VI, which defined a meridian west of which all lands would belong to the kings of Castile and Leon, and not just those discovered by Spanish sailors.
But the aspirations of the Spanish crown did not fruition, and the only glimpse of Hispanic occupation in Alaska can be found thanks to the expeditions of Bruno de Heceta and Alejandro Malaspina, who gave names to some place names like the Malaspina Glacier or the cities of Valdez and Cordova.
In 1799, Nikolai Rezánov obtained the rights of exploitation of skins that had Tsar Pablo I of Russia, to create the Russian-American Company. Although the contact with the native peoples (mainly Inuit, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian) was cordial at the beginning, the occupation of the lands by the Russians came across the weak Indian resistance, who were almost exterminated.
The purchase of Alaska
The turning point for history came in 1867, when William H. Seward, then US Secretary of State, bought the territory of Alaska to Russia for a whopping $ 7.2 million. The lack of cash and the fear of losing the American colonies in a conflict with the British, who at that time controlled Canada, led Tsar Alexander II of Russia to take this controversial decision.
Thus, on October 18th of 1867, the purchase materialized and Alaska became an American domain, turning that date into Alaska Day.
In the United States, however, this acquisition was heavily criticized by the press, and came to be called “Seward’s folly” or “The Seward’s fridge”, given the enormous amount of money spent at that time to acquire what many they saw as a barren and icy land, not to mention that Alaska is not a territorial continuation of the rest of the American states.
But the interests of the government over the Alaska region were purely strategic, granting them control of the Bering Strait and access to the Arctic Ocean, in addition to flanking British Canada. For this reason, much of the public opinion supported this territorial expansion, although the best was yet to come.
In the 1890s, gold was discovered in the Yukon province as well as oil and gas deposits in other parts of Alaska. To assimilate this information, we only have to think that Prudhoe Bay, on the north coast, is the largest US oilfield. This unexpected turn of events made the investment of $ 7.2 million more profitable, making it one of the largest businesses in modern history.
In 1912, Alaska was declared as US territory, with capital in Juneau, and on January 3rd, 1959 became the 49th state of the United States of America.
The future is in the north
To the delight of US interests, Alaska has proved to be the goose that laid the golden eggs, not only because of the immense value of its natural resources (mining, fishing, forestry, and oil) but also because of the geostrategic value which puts the Americans fully in the dispute over control of the Arctic.
In a context of progressive global warming, the increase of temperature in the Arctic is expected to melt the polar ice cap, exposing new oil fields and gas reserves that some countries will claim as their own (US, Russia, Denmark, Norway and Canada). That is why it is understood that we are witnessing a Cold War for controlling the Arctic, where the countries involved are militarizing their northern possessions, as shown on the map.
Similarly, with a theoretical disappearance of the Arctic ice, the maritime trade routes of the northern hemisphere would be affected, and the Bering Strait would become very important, as is the case today in the Suez Canal, the Strait of Gibraltar or the strait of Malacca, to cite some examples. These new routes would save days (even weeks) in the distribution of goods from Asia to Europe, or vice versa.
In this world scenario, the idea of abandoning fossil fuels seems very distant. In fact, it can be disheartening to see how Climate Change benefits the countries of the far north, liberating new areas for energy exploitation, and punishes many others located in the intertropical zone, where desertification and meteorological phenomena put at risk millions of lives.
Alaska, the Seward’s fridge, has turned out to be more than just snow and polar bears for Americans: it’s a ticket to the geopolitical future and another weapon for international negotiation.