Warming stirs new interest in Arctic

Reposted from the Poughkeepsie Journal

Jessica Leclair

Oil, natural gas, mineral deposits, fisheries and shipping prospectors are advancing on the Arctic. Fueled by global warming, ocean routes normally blocked by sea ice are opening up. Most notably, the Northwest Passage, an ocean route across North America, became accessible in recent years to boat traffic.

Rising temperatures affect the Arctic at twice the rate we see in New York because of polar amplification, a phenomenon like a snowball effect in which a little warming causes far more warming. Let’s take sea ice. Sea ice is prevalent throughout the Arctic Ocean, in some areas year round. Sea ice is white, and it reflects the sun’s rays. As the temperatures rise, sea ice melts, exposing ocean water. This water absorbs the once-reflected solar energy and speeds up the warming.

Loss of sea ice is creating new areas for exploration for natural resource development. Governments and industries are salivating at the unexploited economic potential . For example, the United States Geological Society estimates there are 40-160 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil in the Arctic lands, the continental shelf and within the deep basin of the Arctic Ocean. Onshore and offshore oil drilling has already begun in the Arctic.

Dwindling Arctic Sea Ice; image via earthobservatory.nasa.gov

Two recent conferences highlighted the growing interest in all things Arctic: Leadership for the Arctic (April 12-13), hosted by the U.S. Coast Guard and the International Polar Year 2012, From Knowledge to Action, held in Montreal (April 22-27).

At the U.S. Coast Guard conference, a pro-development undercurrent steered the discussion. The United States’ need for a more defined Arctic presence was apparent. The Coast Guard itself does not have sufficient ice breaker capacity or a base in the Arctic region, limiting its ability to respond to crises there.

The lack of scientific knowledge of the Arctic was also discussed. The Arctic is a vast region, and most of it has not been scientifically explored. Not enough baseline information exists to adequately allow for development.

These factors moved Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to urge a precautionary approach to Arctic development.

The International Polar Year meeting brought together more than 3,000 people from more than 40 countries . The International Polar Year is an international effort to research and share information on polar topics. International Polar Year 2012 was a blend of scientists and Arctic leaders .

Artic ice extent and natural resource deposits; image via worldculturepictorial.com

Many experts at the International Polar Year 2012 acknowledged the abundance of untapped natural resources. Dr. Karin Lochte of the German Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research was among those who called out the glaring elephant in the room — whether or not we should go after Arctic resources. If development is the course, we must do so with minimal harm to the environment.

But minimal harm may not be possible yet. Limited base studies and understandings of polar ecosystems mean we will not know what has been damaged.

Additionally, the Arctic may be more accessible, but it is still remote and characterized by harsh conditions including winter sea ice, challenging weather and months of darkness.

In the wake of Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where it took months to stop the spill even though it was surrounded by a network of first responders, one wonders how long would it take to respond to an emergency in the Arctic?

Natural resource development in the Arctic also drives global warming through the burning of more fossil fuels. The more we develop the Arctic’s fossil fuel resources, the warmer the region will get.

Artic development; image via intecsea.com

The Arctic gold rush has many implications for the nearly four million people who live there, as well as the natural environment, which is home to many unique species and is important to many migratory animals (for example, birds from all 50 U.S. states use the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a breeding ground).

The push for development in the Arctic is great, but not unanimously supported. Decisions must be based in science and sustainability. Leaders can learn from a long history of natural resource development when considering how to manage the Arctic gold rush.

Jessica Leclair is a second-year Bard Center for Environmental Policy student.