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Climate change

Loosing our cool

by Mathieu Régnier
This NASA image shows the new record low for Arctic sea ice extent in September compared with the past 30 years’ average minimum extent yellow line

This NASA image shows the new record low for Arctic sea ice extent in September compared with the past 30 years’ average minimum extent yellow line

The ice over the Arctic Ocean is shrinking at a record pace. The evidence is clear. The summer of 2012’s higher-than-average temperatures rushed the yearly break-up of the ice cover like never before since systematic satellite observation of the polar cap began 30 years ago. By Mathieu Régnier

The direct consequences of rapid changes in ice cover are mixed. Some see the trend as positive because of the opening of new transport routes and prospects for world trade. Others warn that this is uncharted territory and argue that the new frontier should be protected from prospecting activities.

Many look at the satellite images and feel scared. Activists, however, are grateful for such clear proof of how fast human activity is disturbing the planet’s climate. Just in terms of ice cover, our children will see the day when the Arctic is free from ice – entirely free – in summer. That may happen as early as 2037, according to the Geophysical Research Letters, and most certainly by mid-century.

One reason for Arctic temperature increases is the albedo effect: dark surfaces absorb more heat than light ones; land and water retain the sun’s heat while ice and snow reflect it. The underlying reason, however, is humankind’s use of fossil fuels and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. The stage seems set for a geo-political conundrum between the eight Arctic nations: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. They have been collaborating since 1996 under the auspices of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum, but tensions could rise now as to whom the great melt is going to make richer.

The Arctic is a source of minerals (gold, iron, zinc, etc.) as well as a potentially major source of oil and gas. Large-scale exploitation of these resources will have a global impact, for instance, by depressing commodity prices. Developing countries that rely on this kind of exports must prepare for tougher competition.

According to a 2008 study by the US Geological Survey, the Arctic contains approximately a fifth of the world’s undiscovered, recoverable oil and gas re­sources. The irony is that the more humanity burns fossil fuels, the easier it becomes to extract even more hydrocarbons. No doubt, this is a vicious circle.

Russia is already trying to attract investments in offshore energy production. “Offshore fields, especially in the Arctic, are without any exaggeration our strategic reserve for the 21st century,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier this year.

If on paper the Arctic is open for business, this does not mean it is a good place for business. Weather conditions are extremely harsh and decade may well go by before any hydrocarbon production starts. This fall, the France-based multinational Total was the first major oil company to take a stand against drilling in the Arctic. The management emphasised environmental risks.

Civil society groups have long warned that the Arctic ecosystem is too fragile to cope even with minor oil leaks. The WWF, an environmental organisation, argues there are no effective methods for containing and cleaning up an oil spill in a region like the Arctic. On the other hand, gas leaks are easier to deal with. In any case, exploitation of natural resources on a massive scale looks certain to happen eventually.

Shipping routes

The prospect of using the North-East Passage close to Russia and the North-West Passage close to Canada is exciting to ship-owners. Arctic routes could rival the Suez Canal and make container transport much cheaper. In theory, the economic potential is great. The distances between major European and Chinese ports may be reduced by around 15 % to 20 %. Savings in time and bunker fuel are appealing.

At the moment, however, the prospects of engaging large ships on these new shipping routes are dim. Ice or no ice, the Arctic sea is a dangerous place and insurance costs could deter the most adventurous for the next couple of decades. Nonetheless, smaller ships like fishing trawlers are appearing in the region in the summer months.

Another global implication of the great thaw is the rise of ocean levels. The melting of Arctic sea ice will not directly impact on ocean levels since the ice was always floating on the ocean (Archimedes’ Principle). Nonetheless, a warmer region will cause Greenland’s land-bound ice sheet to melt, and this can have severe consequences on sea levels around the world. Greenland’s ice sheet’s melt is likely to become the main contributor to planetary sea level rise and this may happen much sooner than has been predicted so far.

Those living in coastal regions and on islands are the ones who will bare the higher costs. Ramifications may be catastrophic:
– Climate migration will increase and trigger conflicts.
– Existing water supply systems are likely to salinise.
– There will be more floods and agriculture will be disrupted.
According to UN Habitat, 13 % of the world population live in coastal areas less than ten meters above sea level.

Preventive and adaptive measures will have to be taken in advance. International development agencies have their work cut out for them. Poor countries around the world deserve support for adapting to a phenomenon that was brought about by the consumption habits of the rich world.

Relevant impacts on biodiversity

In 2007, the journalist Dominique Forget published the book “Perdre le Nord?” (“Loosing the north?) on the ecological, economical, legal, political and human dimensions of the big thaw. She says the basic argument is still up-to-date. Recent data have not changed things, apart from focussing international attention on the Arctic.

As the science writer points out, “warmer often means richer” in terms of biodiversity. Indeed, many studies have assessed climate change impacts at the regional level. “They show an increase in species richness,” Forget says. The moderate warming of polar waters could, for example, promote the multiplication of fish, to the satisfaction of commercial fishers. In fact, several species of Pacific salmon have begun to penetrate the Arctic. Forget visited fishing villages in Canada’s far north. She says that in those places, ecosystem change may be welcomed “in strictly commercial terms”.

There is no guarantee things will stay economically beneficial how­ever. Ecosystems take millennia to evolve and depend on complex equilibria between various components of biodiversity, including a multitude of animals, plants and micro-organisms Short-term trends are no indication of where we are heading.

“Undesired invasive species could be keystone species in a few decades” explains Peter Bridgewater, a former executive of the multilateral Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. He appreciates the importance of novel ecosystems – new, human influenced combinations of species. But in his view, this is not what recent trends in the Arctic are about: “What is happening there is at a much grander scale.”

He also points out that there may be an impact on ocean currents, so there could be “a range of undesirable consequences, far away from the Arctic”. Bridgewater believes that it is probably impossible to stop the melting and that it is an open question how much we can slow its rate. “We must try,” he says, “without loosing our cool.” Forward-looking planning, political leadership and international coordination will indeed be required.