[THS] A melted Arctic: gold mine or honey trap?
psalience at fastmail.fm
Wed Nov 11 17:05:40 CET 2009
A melted Arctic: gold mine or honey trap?
3rd November, 2009
As the melting Arctic ice cap opens a new ocean to the world, governments and
private speculators are rushing to cash in on lucrative resource deposits and shipping
lanes. But they may find these virgin waters a dangerous place to do business
When the U.N. Conference on Climate Change convenes in Copenhagen next month,
one inconvenient truth little discussed will be the benefits Arctic nations - including
the Danish hosts - stand to gain from global warming.
It has become generally accepted that, as ice starts to cover less and less of the
north pole each year, an emergent new ocean will offer prospects of untold mineral
resources and unparalleled access to distant markets via new, shorter shipping
Numerous recent reports have made startling predictions regarding the rate of this
ice break-up. Last month, introducing the results of the Catlin Arctic Survey, Professor
Wadhams of the University of Cambridge declared a new consensus that 'the summer
ice will disappear within twenty to thirty years', with most of that melt occurring in
the next ten.
He went on to say, 'That means you'll be able to treat the Arctic as if it were
essentially an open sea in the summer and have transport across the Arctic Ocean'.
A brave - or foolish - new world?
Though the ice certainly is thinning and receding rapidly, politicians and commercial
pioneers would be well advised to exercise caution, and indeed scepticism, in
considering its implications. Though a particularly strong summer melting trend is
indisputable over the last half century, there is little evidence that the consequent
ecological upheavals are making the region any more hospitable. It may be getting
Given a lack of comprehensive research in the region and the sheer number of
variables at play, it is impossible to speak authoritatively about future conditions. But
a wealth of reputable voices, drawing on both scientific reasoning and operating
experience, do indicate that several regions of the Arctic Ocean are becoming more
hazardous and inaccessible.
There are many reasons why this may be so. For one, the ice is not just melting
quickly: it is melting erratically. This creates highly unpredictable conditions for all
marine activities from Inuit narwhal hunting to operating floating gas platforms.
Although the sea around the Arctic refreezes during the winter, this creates
increasingly abundant 'first-year' seasonal ice, which is less 'solid' than the dwindling
expanses of multi-year ice, and can be more brittle.
Lawson Brigham, a former US Coastguard captain and the author of the 200-page
Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) report for the international Arctic Council,
warns that 'operating conditions for Arctic ships will remain challenging, particularly
But the same report forecasts a growth in such activity across the seasons, often with
highly hazardous cargo. 'Year-to-year [ice] variability poses a serious challenge to risk
and the overall reliability of Arctic marine transport systems,' it notes. In response to
regional climate change, more mobile sea ice is likely to create 'more difficult
operating conditions for marine navigation'.
The AMSA report also pours cold water on the notion that Arctic waters will suddenly
become a commercial shipping free-for-all.
'With the exception of nuclear icebreakers,' it warns, 'very few ships have been built
that could safely carry out year-round commercial navigation in the Canadian Arctic'.
With summer ice expected to endure for two or three decades more in these
passages, the dangers moving ice presents to ships will be heightened by complex
shipping routes with many narrow chokepoints and shallow depth restrictions.
Shpping traffic in the Arctic during 2004. Click on the image to view a larger version
image: AMSA, 2004
According to Dr Michael Bravo of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University
of Cambridge, most mariners and forecasters with practical experience of shipping in
todays Arctic would agree. In an interview with the Ecologist he said:
'All those people say that particularly in areas where you have strong currents like
the Canadian High Arctic archipelago the freeing up of ice will make navigation
more difficult. They are people who deserve listening to.'
It is the kind of warning that rekindles memories of oil tanker disasters - memories
that are still as fresh as the the 26,000 gallons of the Exxon Valdezs lost oil still
trapped along the Alaskan coastline, causing lasting ecological damage.
Climate change bites
Climatic studies have also pointed to stormier conditions as a direct result of the sea
ice disappearing. Last months annual update to the Arctic Report Card, a
collaborative effort of 71 international scientists, indicated major shifts in atmospheric
circulation due to summer ice loss that may bring in storm patterns from the mid-
latitudes. In a paper published in 2006 by researchers at the University of Bristol it is
noted that 'sea ice plays an important role in the climate system in that it influences
ocean-to-atmosphere fluxes, surface albedo, and ocean buoyancy'.
With the ice layer removed, temperature and moisture exchanges between the ocean
and atmosphere occur much more readily. Complex simulation models have indicated
this will cause higher precipitation levels and an intensification of storm tracks over
the next century as a result of lower pressure and higher temperatures at surface
level. In other words, the moderating influence of the sea ice on atmospheric
conditions is disappearing.
The implications do not bode well for those operating in the open Arctic. Large ice
islands are now breaking free more frequently due to heightened heat and wind
stress. Although small icebergs have been encountered by North Atlantic navigators
for decades, these colossal chunks pose even greater threats. Regardless of new
regulations requiring tankers to be double-hulled, they are capable of crushing ships
and immobile oil rigs alike.
source: AMSA, 2004
The new frontier
And yet it is evident that the new commercial colonisation of the Arctic has begun.
Most recent were the voyages made by the Beluga Fraternity and Foresight, the twin
German merchant ships that became the first Western commercial vessels to traverse
Russias Arctic coastline this September. Soviet shipping along the Russian coastline
was established decades ago, but many hope constraints of expensive icebreaker
escorts and narrow seasonal windows will soon disappear an expectation
encouraged by the Beluga voyages.
More significantly, a number of major resource extraction and shipping operations
have begun in earnest in a region at the western end of this route known as the
Pechora basin. Located within the Barents Sea, the area is believed to hold 610
million oil barrels for extraction.
Though modest by Gulf standards, the draw has been enough to prompt a flurry of
infrastructure investments. The Varandey 'fixed offshore ice resistant terminal'
recently began loading tankers with 12 million tons of oil per annum for immediate
shipment to European and North American markets. Another Russian firm is
constructing a rival floating platform at a nearby location, even though it is currently
ice-free only 110 days of the year.
These are both serviced by tankers as large as 70,000 deadweight tons, which in a
sign of growing faith in Arctic marine conditions were opted for in preference to a
pipeline. To put these behemoths into context, many would be too large to fit
through the Panama Canal.
U.S. and Canadian ships were busy too this summer, mapping the Beaufort Sea
basin. Typically forward-thinking corporate energy giants scouted the region long
ago, but this government-led operation aims to support national territorial claims to
vast, untapped resource deposits. Future extraction is evidently in mind: the U.S.
Minerals Management Service is already fielding fierce controversy after leasing a
number of offshore Alaskan Shelf drilling sites to Royal Dutch Shell.
In total approximately 6000 ships were active in the Arctic Ocean by 2004. Anecdotal
evidence suggests numbers have increased further since.
source: AMSA, 2004
What's driving the risk-takers?
The risks of extracting resources or sailing in the Arctic are plain for all to see. So why
have those behind the grand schemes outlined above chosen to ignore them, and
why are national governments so happy to turn a blind eye?
The answer lies in a complex web of factors, and not all are as simple as melting ice.
In fact, one of the main drivers may be the international commodities market.
It is a matter of simple economics that with higher prices, resource reserves
previously too expensive to extract become economically viable. Given the sizeable
problem ice caps pose to accessibility, resources buried underneath have always
been assumed too expensive to extract. But today, investors positioning themselves
for a role in the Arctics future are driven more by the expectation of resource prices
rising than of the ice melting.
'A couple of years ago when people got so excited about [Arctic resources] the price
of oil was extremely high,' Dr Bravo explains. 'In the last year it has crashed, and in
the Arctic you can see the consequences of that. All kinds of mineral extraction
projects and oil and gas explorations have just stopped.'
Oil prices were scaling unprecedented heights around the time of most significant
investment in the Barents Sea offshore projects. In February 2008, the same month
crude oil passed the $100 per barrel mark, the U.S. Minerals Management Service
received a staggering $2.7billion for Alaskan offshore lease sales.
Political agendas in the Arctic are perhaps even more complex, but there are many
reasons why governments should choose to encourage activity in the Arctic, even
when operating conditions for oil rig workers and sailors may potentially worsen.
States hold the greatest responsibility for regulating marine activity, but portraying
the Arctic waters as safe is convenient for politicians keen to encourage hazardous
yet profitable activities there. Thus Russia stands to gain a slice of the lucrative
international shipping trade, and the US may relieve future oil dependency concerns.
Governments are also likely to overstate the accessibility of the Arctic because new
shipping routes and oil fields require regulation, and hence must be strategically
'claimed' (when frozen, inaccessible waters tend to occupy a special perpetual limbo
in international legislation).
An interesting example is Article 234 of the U.N. Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which
allows states to legally restrict naval passage through nearby coastal waters according
to individual environmental standards. This clause was proposed by Canada after the
U.S. disputed its claims to the North-West Passage as strictly internal waters, and has
enabled it to extend existing legislation such as the Canadian Shipping Act to
establish greater control over the straits.
Many in the field believe that such a piecemeal and opportunistic approach to
regulation based on national interests is inadequate where the environmental stakes
are so high. A more joined-up, international approach is called for, particularly for
international waters beyond any nations claims.
The idea that climate change makes the Arctic more hospitable is simply a myth. In
fact the opposite is often true. But blaming melting ice for the growing scramble for
Arctic resources risks ignoring other political and economic motives that may be
almost as hard to tackle as climate change itself.
Andrew Marszal is a freelance journalist
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