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Diminishing Ice Intensifies Spotlight on Arctic

Arctic Ice Melt
Arctic ice melt.

By Masika Henson 

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Arctic region had a record low sea ice extent in 2012 and lower than average coverage at the start of 2014. The decreased ice has caused shifts in the feeding, breeding and migration patterns of the region’s wildlife, with additional implications for the local communities that, in part, rely on this wildlife for subsistence.

Polar bears are turning from seals to bird eggs as a diet source. A longer than usual warming season in 2013 left 11 confused Orcas trapped under Canadian sea ice after a rapid temperature drop caused the ice to form before they could retreat. Arctic indigenous communities have modified both their hunting strategies and ranges because of thinning ice. Because of the region’s climate changes, they face the threat of more severe storms and coastal flooding.

The health of the Arctic Ocean has been on a decline for many years as a result of pollution, a rapidly changing climate and overfishing. Warming temperatures and the resulting sea ice melt in the Arctic has opened up waters that were once unreachable by maritime vessels, creating new trade routes, shortened travel times, new commercial fisheries, and oil and gas drilling opportunities. Each of these opportunities has the potential to not only boost, but also stabilize the economy of many stakeholders including the United States, Russia, Norway, China and the Arctic region itself. Lloyd’s of London predicts that in the next 10 years, the region could attract $100 billion in investment.

In its March 2013 issue, devoted to oil exploration in the Arctic, Oil Magazine called Arctic exploration “the new frontier of energy procurement.”  It has been estimated that there may be up to 90 billion barrels of undiscovered crude oil or 13 percent of all that on earth, as well as 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Arctic.

Drilling for oil in the Arctic is not a new phenomenon and has been happening for many years, peaking in the 1960s off the coasts of Alaska and Russia. Now that researchers predict a future Arctic that’s nearly ice-free during the summer, oil exploration has again become a point of concentration. Last year, despite a faulty rig, which halted drilling efforts, Shell Oil continued its quest for oil in Arctic waters. Toward the latter part of 2013, several Greenpeace activists were jailed for their protest of drilling in the Russian Arctic Circle. However, in January 2014, Shell Oil called off its quest for oil in Alaskan waters after an appeals court ruling said that the lease on the Chukchi Sea failed to consider the impacts of oil drilling.

The known direct and indirect impacts of oil drilling come from scientific evidence as well as historical records. Burning fossil fuels is causing warming, and extracting and burning more will cause more warming, indirectly impacting the region’s ecosystem through climate change.

On the other hand, oil spills can directly devastate the area as exemplified by the Deep Water Horizon catastrophe in 2010 and the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. A spill like either of those catastrophes in arctic waters could harm an already vulnerable ecosystem and be physically and financially challenging for the responsible company. In addition to being remote, the Arctic environment consists of icy waters, extreme weather patterns and extended periods of darkness. Some experts say a spill in that environment is unavoidable, and therefore it is imperative that all impacts are considered before drilling continues. It is important for decision makers from public and private sectors to consider the impacts of oil and gas drilling on the environmental level as well as the social and economic levels. The major challenge will be figuring out how to manage short-term energy demands while addressing the long-term impacts of this form of energy procurement in the region.

During an interview with Bill Moyers, Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Nadoo summed up the importance of the Arctic by saying, “The Arctic is the air conditioner and the refrigerator of the planet, and what happens here affects all of us.” Sea ice affects the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere as well as the circulation of its ocean currents. Snow and ice cover keep the Arctic cool, but when they melt, the Earth’s surface absorbs more sunlight instead of reflecting it, which in turn heats the atmosphere. As a consequence of the atmospheric temperature increase, we get more Arctic ice melt, creating a feedback loop that exacerbates the issue.

Scientific research has presented clear evidence of the importance of the Arctic region to the overall health and functioning of the Earth’s climate system. As the region loses ice, it is gaining a new economic and social prominence that extends from local to global levels. However, economic and social tradeoffs are unclear. How to balance the economic, social and environmental functions of the Arctic will be an important question for the local and global communities impacted by a rapidly changing region.

For a closer look at the opportunities and challenges to energy procurement in the Arctic, check out the upcoming discussion hosted by the Center on Global Energy Policy and the Consulate General of Canada in New York: “Understanding the Arctic Resource Challenge: Canada and U.S. Perspectives.” The event takes places on Wednesday, March 26, 2014, from 6-7:30 p.m. For more information and to register, see their website.

Masika Henson is an intern with the Columbia Climate Center and a Master of Science candidate in Sustainability Management at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She will graduate in May 2014.  

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