Climate Change

Is Arctic rush worth it?

With Shell's proposed oil exploration in the Chukchi Sea, we revisit the potential impact of exploring oil, natural gas, minerals and fish under the melting Arctic ice

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Thursday 31 May 2012

Is Arctic rush worth it?

arctic rush

The 80,000-odd tourists heading for the North Pole this summer are likely to witness a changing topography: icebergs crumbling into the sea, ice shelves floating away and freely navigable sea lanes that remained icebound just five years ago. Rising global temperature is melting Arctic sea ice, making a piece of the planet accessible for the first time in living memory. On their way the tourists would often encounter cargo liners on exploration missions—each clearing the way for future routes to exploit the frozen pole. These cargo liners herald the intense competition to grab the abundance of natural resources that lie under the melting sea ice. Whether the tourist is from far away India, China or Singapore, he or she will be able to gauge the future economic and political impacts of the disappearing ice caps on his or her respective economy.

Recent scientific studies confirm that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe. The period between 2005 and 2010 was the warmest since record keeping began in 1840. In September 2011, at the height of its summertime shrinkage, ice caps covered 4.33 million square kilometres of the Arctic Ocean. This, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), was a 50 per cent drop from the average sea ice cover between 1979 and 2000.

The Arctic is also getting thinner and younger. Its thicker, older ice caps that have formed over several years and were able to survive through the summer melt season are increasingly being replaced with ice that accrues over the winter every year and then melts away. This makes the Arctic more vulnerable to global warming. By the reckoning of NSIDC, only five per cent of the Arctic ice caps were over five years old last summer. In the early 1980s as much as 40 per cent of the Arctic sea ice was over five years old. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 estimated that the Arctic will have an ice-free summer by the end of this century. A few recent studies predict that this may happen as early as 2030-2040. But no one can say for sure. What everyone is sure about is summer now comes early and stays longer.

“This is a very fast, profound and dramatic change in the earth system. It has significant consequences for the world,” says Vladimir Ryabinin of World Climate Research Programme.

The Arctic’s vast reservoirs of fossil fuel, fish and minerals, including rare earth materials, are now accessible for a longer period. But unlike Antarctica, which is protected from exploitation by the Antarctic Treaty framed during the Cold War and is not subject to territorial claims by any country (see ‘Poles apart’), there is no legal regime protecting the Arctic from industrialisation, especially at a time when the world craves for more and more resources. The distinct possibility of ice-free summer has prompted countries with Arctic coastline to scramble for great chunks of the melting ocean. The scrambling pales the Gold Rush of the 19th century in its scope and degree.

poles apart

Of the eight Arctic nations—Russia, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Canada and the US—several have explored the Arctic waters and found over 400 oilfields with proven reserves of around 240 billion barrels of crude oil and natural gas. This is about 10 per cent of the world’s known hydrocarbon reserves. They have also discovered significant deposits of various minerals on the seabed.

New reserves will be available with further melting of the polar sea ice. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds up to 20 per cent of the world’s unexplored hydrocarbon reserves, with potential oil reserves of 90 billion barrels, natural gas reserves of 47.3 trillion cubic metres and gas condensate reserves of 44 billion barrels. Around 80 per cent of these new discoveries are likely to be found offshore at an easy depth of 500 metres.

As a bonus, the vanishing ice also opens up two new faster shipping routes that sharply reduce the distance between Western countries and Asia by connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. These are the Northwest Passage along the northern coast of North America and the Northeast Passage along the Siberia coast (see map). The Northwest Passage will reduce the distance from US’ Seattle port to Rotterdam in the Netherlands by almost 25 per cent compared to the current route via the Panama Canal. The voyage from Rotterdam to Yokohama in Japan via the Northeast Passage will be 40 per cent shorter than the traditional Suez Canal route. Explorers had long sought these trans-Arctic passages as possible trade routes.

With fast-rising global temperatures, if, as some scientists predict, these passages become navigable round the year in the coming decades, they could redraw the global trading routes. Shipping routes will shift from politically unstable regions like Western Asia and piracy-infested routes like the South China Sea, the Malacca Straits and the Gulf of Aden.

The melting has been so fast that each shipping season attains a new milestone. In August 2008, a Danish cable ship became the first commercial vessel to pass through the Northwest Passage. It saved 15 days on its voyage from Japan to Newfoundland off the east coast of Canada. In September 2010, the first cargo ship with 41,000 tonnes of iron ore sailed through the Northeast Passage to Asia. Around the same time last summer, a Russian ship became the first supertanker to ferry 120,000 tonnes of gas condensate through the route. The largest-ever bulk carrier crossed the ocean when a Japanese ship with 66,000 tonnes of iron ore completed its voyage from Russia’s Kola Peninsula to Jingtang in China. Norway plans to ferry liquified natural gas (LNG) to Japan through the route this summer.

According to Canadian and US maritime experts, nearly two per cent of the ships worldwide could be sailing through the Arctic by 2030, which will grow to five per cent by 2050. Several Arctic countries are planning deep sea ports in the pole. Shipping companies have already built 500 ice-class ships, suitable for the Arctic region. More are under construction.

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