Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Arctic Will Never Be The Same

The icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnicov in pack ice off Canada Photo: Daisy Gilardini

Even though the horrors of global warming and climate change have been kept in the forefront of people’s minds for the past several years, nothing speaks louder than money. The following is the story of vultures, greed and the cashing-in on a dying ecosystem.

As the Arctic ice retreats, surrounding countries are waiting with the patience only vultures can muster to be the first to rob the Arctic of her natural subterranean treasures. The US Geological Survey estimates that 13% of world’s undiscovered oil; 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas; and, precious metals including iron ore, gold, zinc and nickel lie beneath the Arctic tundra.

The weakening of the tundra year by year exposes more and more of the Arctic’s coast to the onslaught of the freezing, unthawing, and refreezing cycles of the cold, merciless Arctic Ocean allowing a little more the Arctic to wash out to sea.

However, this also makes the coveted oil, gas and precious metals more accessible to those who would plunder this unique ecosystem.

As if this wasn’t enough to fight over, the prospect of a new shortcut between Europe and Asia has driven all countries into new frenzies. The prospect of the financial gains this plum could generate is enough to put the countries at each others’ throats.

Not only can the new shortcut slash journey times by as much as one-third causing significant savings in itself; but, with the decrease in ice mass, the passage stays open for a longer period allowing even more sailings per year.

The ice mass has already decreased to such an extent that two German ships have successfully completed their journey from South Korea to Bremen without an icebreaker escort.

Hungry eyes have now become fixated on Canada’s Northwest Passage believing it could be utilized instead of the Suez and/or Panama canals.

The posturing, haggling, wheeling-dealing and political rhetoric has begun. Last year, Russia sent a submarine to plant its flag beneath the North Pole. When spring comes Russia plans to follow up this move by dropping paratroopers there. Quite the statement!

The latest findings from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre at the University of Colorado have shown that the ice levels now stand well below their long-term average: this summer’s total of 1.97 million sq. mi. is nearly one-third less than the average figure for 1979-2000 despite some minor fluctuations. The data was gathered using remote sensing data from NASA satellites.

While there is talk about an “ice-free” passage, in actuality the passage will only remain ice-free longer during the summer season – it will not remain ice-free year round. If the ice were to melt as some would like the effects would be completely unpredictable. No two areas would be affected by climate change in the same way.

This is borne out by the observations of sailors who have been observing conditions along the Russian coast since the 1930s. Their findings have shown that, while ice in the Kara and Chukchi seas is marginally thicker; there are other areas, including parts of the Laptev and East Siberian seas, where it has become more brittle.

While the insurers of the ice-strengthened vessels tear each other to pieces trying to determine how to set rates when the ice coverage fluctuates dramatically from year to year, there are environmental issues that will probably be overlooked until the problem has hit critical mass.

As the ice melts, the possibility exists that it will start to float more freely creating potentially very hazardous operating conditions for ships – especially during spring and summer. The ice packs polar bears, walrus, and other marine mammals depend on for survival will continue to get smaller; float further and further out of their reach; and, be available to them for shorter and shorter periods of time each year.

Longer ice-free seasons may also cause undue coastal erosion. This would make the building of any infrastructures very difficult (if not impossible). The harbours, terminals and depots needed to support both ships and mining operations may end up having to be built in locations that are inconvenient; or, they may not be available at all.

In the true sense of misery loves company - the last piece of bad news offered here may be the worst of all.

The National Centre for Scientific Research in France has just forecast that 10% of the Arctic Ocean will be corrosively acidic by 2018. That’s less than one decade from now. This is within most of our lifetimes.

By 2050 it will have risen to 50% of the Arctic Ocean. That’s one-half on an entire ocean; and, still within the lifetime of some of us. I won’t live to see this; but, my children will.

By 2100, if anyone is still around, The National Centre for Scientific Research predicts the entire ocean will be unable to support shellfish. Once one part of the food chain becomes extinct, the effects ripple through the entire food chain.

But, I have to wonder how many of us will be left to care.

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