A melted Arctic: gold mine or honey trap?

A ship breaking through Arctic ice
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 routes.

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 less so.

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 in winter'.

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 today’s 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 Valdez’s 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 month’s 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 Russia’s 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 Arctic’s 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.

Sovereign seas

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 nation’s 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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