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Artic Melting

Arctic Blues

The earth is warming. Almost all the Arctic summer ice may have melted by the end of the century, claims the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC. The upside - access to an estimated quarter of the world's oil and gas resources and the opening of the fabled North West passage. The downside - the Arctic wilderness is lost as neighbouring countries, Denmark and Greenland, Russia, Canada, Norway and the United States all race to share in the bounty. This week, Earth Report discovers the importance of the worlds icy regions, and asks how much the geopolitical scramble will impact this, the world's last frontier.

When a liquid takes on a solid form, it's an almost magical transformation. Rain falling as snow charms children and adults alike. Snow flakes fascinate with their complex, symmetrical patterns. Yet it's not uncommon, 15% of the earth's surface is covered by snow and ice . This frozen world forms part of the earth's cryosphere, the term describes the portions of the earth's surface where water is in solid form. It includes snow, sea ice, glaciers, frozen lakes and rivers and the ice caps. There is so much ice that if were all to melt, global sea level would rise by 65 metres.

Glacier Arctic glacier 'calving'
That's not likely to happen any time soon, yet all over the world, ice is melting. Glaciers are particularly vulnerable, especially at the margins of their existence.

Prof. Dowdeswell, Director, Scott Polar Research Institute: Climate Change today is affecting most glaciers quite considerably. Surface runoff is increasing, the ice is retreating and the ice is also thinning.

Himalayan glaciers feeding the headwaters of the Ganges in India, and glaciers feeding the Yellow River in China are retreating. Glaciers in the European Alps have lost around half their volume since the start of the 19th century and in 1910, North America's Glacier National Park had 150 glaciers, today it has less than 30.

Prof. Dowdeswell: Of course that water flows back into the global ocean and the result of that is global sea level rise. What we are seeing in the global sea level record is that sea level is rising faster than it was even 20 or 30 years ago.

Sea level has risen 20 centimetres in the past century. There's one main culprit, heat. In that time the earth's temperature has risen by an average of three-quarters of a degree Celsius, according to the IPCC, a panel of the world's top climate scientists. There is no denying, fire and ice don't mix. The Scott Polar Research Institute, based in Cambridge in the UK, is a world centre for the study of the polar regions.

Prof. Dowdeswell, Director, Scott Polar Research Institute: Global climate models predict that change over the entire earth in terms of temperature may be as much as a few degrees over the next 50 to 100 years but all those models also suggest that the Arctic temperature will increase much more than lower latitudes.

Average temperatures in the Arctic have increased by almost twice the global figure. It's a phenomenon known as positive feedback, and may lead to an accelerating rise in Arctic temperatures.

Prof. Dowdeswell: In the sea we have floating sea ice which is very reflective and if that forms less year to year we have more open ocean and that open ocean is not very reflective it is very dark and that in turn changes the energy balance at the sea surface. So it is not just that the global climate is changing by one, two or three degrees, it is that there is a positive feedback in addition to that, which enhances the change.

A warming Arctic is having far reaching consequences. Melting snow is seeping into the ground as water and then re-freezing, turning it rock hard, making it difficult for reindeer to forage for food. The livelihoods of Indigenous people who depend on reindeer suffer in turn. Meanwhile the world of the Polar Bears is literally dissolving beneath them. In the western Hudson Bay the population has declined by 22% over the past 20 years. Without sea ice the bears cannot hunt for seals, and with greater distances to swim between the ice flows, the bears drown.

Polar bear Polar bears are threatened by melting ice
However, the receding sea ice is expected to bring big profits too; facilitating oil and gas exploration and opening new shipping lanes. The earth's last frontier may well become a new Klondike, as petrochemical companies race to exploit its mineral resources. There may also be changes to the living world. As the oceans warm, some fish species are migrating northwards. In an effort to understand these trends, the Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries spends 40% of its budget on research. Jorn Korg is its General Secretary.

Jorn Korg, Gen. Sec. Ministry of Fisheries, Norway: We have seen during the last years a more northern migration of pelagic stocks like the mackerel, the blue whiting, which is a great stock in the Norwegian Sea, has migrated northwards. They are estimated to more than 1 million tons of that species in the Barents sea, five or 10 years ago there was only minor quantities to be observed.

Key to protecting the northern fish stocks is a sound management policy, both within Norway and with neighbouring countries such as Russia.

Jorn Korg: The evidence is that the cod stock in our waters, besides the Icelandic cod stock, is the only two left in the world being managed in a way which has been sustainable.

The first fishermen to exploit Arctic waters were whalers, hunting for their oil. Their base, the Arctic island archipelago of Svalbard and its main island Spitzbergen. Early accounts from the seamen spoke of finding so many whales, it was almost impossible to pass through the water. Two centuries on, the slaughter of over 120 thousand whales led to one entire species, the Greenland Right Whale, being hunted almost to extinction . Today, coal mining is big business on Svalbard. Svalbard's largest settlement, Longyearbyen, is named after the American miner who opened the first profitable mine in 1906. Nils Tokheim is a director of the mining company, Store Norske.

Nils Tokheim, Director Store Norske: The coal seam is from here, down to here, it's about one and a half metres. Here is where the coal seam is starting, you can clearly see the difference. We call this black gold and the coal prices at the moment are comfortably high, so that's good.

Longyearbyen Longyearbyen coal mine
Over 3 million tones of coal are exported every year. However, getting it to market is not always possible, the port is only ice-free for just a few months each year.

Nils Tokheim: Being the northernmost mine in the world and being in the Arctic you should think that we have a lot of disadvantages. Actually we do have one big disadvantage and that is the ice which prevents us from shipping seven months a year. That is our problem.

The impact of global warming melting the Arctic ice may well lead to increased opportunities for coal and mineral extraction.

Nils Tokheim: Well it would make it easier because it will expand the shipping season which mean that we would not have to store coal for such a long time which is quite expensive. That would help us.

Coal may be big business on Svalbard, but the profits from potential Arctic oil and gas reserves could be enormous. As the ice melts, the scramble to gain rights to this wealth has begun.


The United States Geological Survey believes the Arctic may contain 25% of the world's remaining oil reserves . This is on top of the already massive Arctic gas fields. Cutting edge technologies, such as sub-sea platforms that avoid the worst of the Arctic weather, has enabled the exploitation of the worlds most northerly gas reserves. Development of the Russian Shtokman and Norwegian Snohvit gas fields, were initially rejected due to the extreme Arctic conditions, but are now almost completely operational. But will global warming bring any special difficulties to production in the Arctic? Arvid Jensen is the chairman of Petro-Arctic, a company delivering goods and services to the oil and gas industry.

Arvid Jensen, Chairman Petro-Arctic: The difficulties can be changes following the melting of ice - icebergs can be a problem, big icebergs moving down in the Barents Sea, and this can be a new situation for the oil and gas industry, and industry in general.

Ice sheet melting Ice sheet melting
Increased numbers of large icebergs could pose a problem for underwater pipes taking oil and gas from well heads in the Arctic. If they are ruptured by an iceberg the oil spill would have serious consequences for wildlife in the region. Norwegian oil companies follow strict environmental regulations to safeguard against any spillage in their territorial waters.

Arvid Jensen: In the north there are especially strict requirements because the authorities don't want any pollution to the sea and today the oil companies fulfil these requirements.

Without a comprehensive Arctic treaty can all the oil companies be trusted to follow suit? Or will the rush for Arctic oil mirror the tragedy of the early whalers? The Arctic is surrounded by five countries, Norway, Greenland - linked to Denmark, Canada, Russia and the US - all of whom have, over the past few hundred years, made agreements and harboured unresolved disputes over rights to the Arctic. With no general Arctic treaty to arbitrate competing claims most countries referred to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Under the treaty a country's waters reach 12 miles off the coast. But countries are allowed a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, or EEZ. It gives them fishing and exploitation rights. However some countries are looking to claim even larger areas.

Louise de Lafayette, International Lawyer: some states had continental shelves extending from their land area way beyond 200 miles. They wanted to have access to the resources because they argued that as long as they could get their technology to explore these resources they should have the right to exploit them beyond the 200 miles.

In 2001 Russia submitted a claim to an extension of its continental shelf outside the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone to include the Lomonosov Ridge. Canada and Denmark, through its union with Greenland, are submitting a counter claim. If either party is successful, the resulting Exclusive Economic Zone will extend for 1,800 km across the entire Arctic from Canada and Greenland in the south west to Siberia in the north east, right past the North Pole. It will give the controlling country rights to a huge area of potential oil, gas and fish resources. Determining the validity of the claims will rely on an unholy mix of science and politics.

Copenhagen, capital city of Denmark, and home to the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. Trine Dahl-Jensen is one of the lead scientists from the Lomonosov Ridge mapping project. Her team, working in conjunction with the Canadians, is charged with finding out whether the Lomonosov Ridge is joined to the Canadian/Greenland continental shelf. This is the basis of the their claim to an extension of their Exclusive Economic Zones.

Trine Dahl-Jensen, Team Leader LORITA Project: What we do need to argue and to prove is the connection onto Greenland and Canada. What we are looking for here is to look at the deep structure, down to several 10's of kilometres beneath the surface of the earth.

To prove their claim the team need to show that the rock types of the ridge are the same as those of the continental shelf.

Trine Dahl-Jensen, Team Leader LORITA Project: We make a sound, a big bang, which we do by explosions and then we record how that sound travels through the earth for many hundreds of kilometres.

The rock type is determined by the time taken for the sound waves to travel through it - the longer the sound takes, the denser the rock. The experiments have to be carried out in daylight, and on the ice, which limits the scientists to just 6 weeks in a year when they can work.

Trine Dahl-Jensen: It is cold, this is an area where probably some of the harshest ice conditions that exist on the planet even the big Russian nuclear ice breakers have reservations about working in this area.

The instruments have to be kept warm, in freezer boxes!

Trine Dahl-Jensen: So all 150 of our instruments were packed in insulating boxes and the best insulating box you can buy is a picnic cooler and then we packed them full of ice packs to keep our instruments warm and that sounds very very weird indeed but the point is we packed them with thawed icepacks and they keep the temperature in the box at about 2 or three degrees below zero instead of the contents going to minus forty immediately, which kills a battery within hours.

The data is still being analysed. Under the UN Law of the Sea Canada and Denmark have a limited time by which they must submit their claim.

Kai Sorensen, Director, Denmark and Greenland Geological Survey: If you have ratified the convention you then have 10 years to prove this natural prolongation and that is what we are doing. That is what the Arctic nations are doing. Of course all countries will try to get as much as possible. Then they will make up the principles afterwards.

It is not only exploitation rights that are in dispute. For five hundred years explorers have searched for a sea route over the Arctic linking Europe with Asia. The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to make it through in 1906 - but the ice was so thick, it took him three years to complete the journey. In 2005 the sailboat ‘Northabout' completed the passage in just 24 days. The viability of the passage as a commercial shipping lane is now thought to be very close.

Louise de Lafayette, International Lawyer: It is quite likely given the melting of the ice in the Arctic that there will be an open sea lane through the NW passage sometime in the near future. Already the sea ice is melting and it is possible for ships to go through. And certainly from and economic and navigational point of view it would be very advantageous because it would mean that ships no longer have to take detours through the Panama canal.

Named after the pioneering Arctic explorer, the Canadian icebreaker ‘Amundsen', is surveying the North-west passage. With the possibility of the route opening to commercial traffic, Canada and the US are disputing who controls the sea-lane. The Canadian government weren't able to provide us with a spokesperson, but Louise de Lafayette worked as an adviser to the Canadian Government on ocean issues, and is now working as an international lawyer, specializing in the Arctic.

Louise de Lafayette, International Lawyer: Canada claims that the sea areas between their islands are internal waters which means that no foreign state has any right to send ships into those waters without permission.

The UN Law of the Sea provides an exception to this rule, whereby if internal waters are used as an international shipping lane, then other countries have rights of ‘transit passage' though these territorial waters.

NW passage The legendary North-west Passage is opening up
David H Wilkins, US Ambassador to Canada: I think it's important throughout the world, that countries are able to use the seas, for free passage, for innocent passage, I think it's important for international trade, for the international community that straits like this are used for transit.

Louise de Lafayette: Canada argues that the NW passage is not a straight used for international navigation because until recently only one or two ships had gone through.

David H Wilkins, US Ambassador to Canada: - and it's not Canada vs the US, it's really Canada vs the rest of the world. We are not disputing, the EU is not disputing the US is not disputing the sovereignty of the lands by Canada or the mineral rights or the fishing rights all we are saying is this is a transit for navigation and the NW passage is a strait for international navigation.

Some fear the US objections to Canadian control of the NW passage may have more to do with Canada's strict environmental controls rather than the possibility Canada will refuse the US the right of passage.

Louise de Lafayette: At the moment Canada does exercise special control over ships travelling through the Arctic because in 1971 Canada enacted the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act which the US and some other countries objected to. It imposed very strict controls from an environmental point of view over ships travelling through the Arctic.

David H Wilkins, US Ambassador to Canada: The United States at that time expressed our problems with the act and that's well stated and again that's another area where we've agreed to disagree for some decades.

Satellite data since 1979 shows that the extent of the average summer Arctic sea ice has been shrinking by 9% per decade. As the ice melts, time is running out on settling long standing disputes over Arctic exploitation rights and access to sea lanes. The repercussions however will not be limited to this, the earth's last frontier.

Prof. Dowdeswell, Director, Scott Polar Research Institute: The polar regions to many people may seem a long way away and may not seem very relevant to what happens at lower latitudes but in fact the global climate system is very much a linked system. The pieces whether they are at high or low latitudes all fit together. So if we do have enhanced melting of glaciers and ice sheets over the next 100 years that will affect sea level on a global scale.


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This article was published on Tuesday 12 August, 2008.

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