The Arctic, drop by drop
The environmental issue of the thawing of the North Pole
The surface of the Arctic Ocean melts at a growing pace; in fact, it may run out of ice during summers within a maximum period of twenty years. Despite the huge environmental problem this implies, some governments seem more concerned with obtaining a part of the treasures the seabed harbours, oil being the most precious among them.
Tens of scientists, ecologists, technocrats and citizens committed to save the environment look northward with concern. This area, which was protagonist in great feats of mankind and incredible stories, becomes increasingly accessible and decreasingly mysterious, as the environs that made it unique start vanishing. The reasons for this melting are manifold, there is not a «single enemy» to battle, the fight has several fronts and the consequences will not be limited to that area either; whatever happens on the Arctic will affect us all.
«The last images, taken by a United States satellite in September 2012, and interpreted by NASA and the American National Snow and Ice Data Center, confirmed the worst scientists’ hypotheses»
The Arctic is a fading utopia. This white paradise, which has reached a thawing peak according to this year’s data, has its days numbered. This so-called by many experts «frontier of the fight against climate change», is soon to fall in front of many watchful eyes that understand how irreparable consequences could be.
During this summer, thawing data surprised month after month. The Arctic Ocean registered the highest thawing level from 1979, when measurements started. The last images, taken by a United States satellite in September 2012, and interpreted by NASA and the American National Snow and Ice Data Center, confirmed the worst scientists’ hypotheses. During that month ice in the Arctic covered 3.41 million square kilometres, over 70,000 less than in 2007, when the last record was set.
It is not an isolated event. A few weeks ago, we also learned that Pettermann’s glacier broke and a 70-kilometres-long iceberg became detached. But those images gradually stopped shocking anyone, they seem routine.
According to data argued by climate change experts, in ten or twenty years at best, the Arctic will be completely ice-free during the summer.
«Immediate consequences of ice loss include the disappearance of many species’ habitats; an acceleration of Arctic warming due to the albedo increase and the growth in the risk of abrupt changes because of massive amounts of greenhouse emissions. We have to add to these effects the rise in human pressure on the ecosystem due to an increase on mining activity, extraction of gas and oil, fishing and navigation», details Carlos Duarte, researcher in the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies in Blanes (CSIC).
This thawing does not interest everyone evenly, the reason being that, without ice, the Arctic could turn into a «New World» for many countries.
The Fantastic Five of the Arctic
The new territorial struggle is not on the Moon, not even in Mars. The new Cold War is being fought in the north of the globe, far from our glances. The countries who control the northern area and want «a piece of the pie» are the USA, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark, the so-called «Arctic 5». These countries claim different parts of the area with the excuse of historical rights or proximity, but they leave some of their neighbours aside. Three more countries have part of their territory in the Arctic, but they do not enter the struggle for control of the area: Finland, Iceland and Sweden, although part of that territory is considered sub-Arctic.
«This thawing does not interest everyone evenly, the reason being that, without ice, the Arctic could turn into a “New World” for many countries»
In this region rules are not at all clear, as opposed to Antarctica, which has an international treaty protecting it from economical and military activity. 1982’s United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea opened the possibility that Arctic-bordering countries could claim an economic area beyond the 200 miles (370 kilometres) of their territorial waters. But the conflict remains unresolved.
The Arctic Council, established in the Ottawa Declaration, monitors the region. They are an intergovernmental forum that discusses issues about the governments of Arctic countries and their indigenous folk. Despite the treaty, different countries have taken positions with uneven success and uneven international boast.
The ships navigating the area now do not look for new species or measure the oxygen level of its water. Now, these vessels look for territorial limits and natural resources. Canada, for instance, acted in a direct way to ensure its sovereignty over this forgotten region for years. In fact, it has been patrolling the Arctic with soldiers and keeping track of it with satellites for years.
Russia did not take long to assume positions. In August 2007, to prove that the Arctic was an extension of Lomonosóv Ridge and Mendeléev Ridge and it was, therefore, Russian, an expedition led by Artur Chilingarov set a Russian flag on the sea bottom. This event, apparently symbolic as the American flag on the Moon, seeks to claim 1.2 million kilometres of the Arctic. This piece of news arrived along with another: the historical melting record of the region.
Denmark, which owns Greenland in the Arctic Circle, has already sent geological missions to the area in order to gather data proving that they also deserve a piece of the pie. The United States, on the other hand, have a map of the Arctic sea bottom in their possession.
Far away is May the 11th 1926, a historical date when Roald Amundsen, Umberto Nobile, Lincoln Ellsworth and other 13 people arrived to the North Pole on the airship Norge. They conquered it in a different way, of course.
If that great journey has already been made, if that peak has been reached, then why is that piece of ice so important today? It looks like the answer to the region’s sovereignty lies under the seabed, just as the riches it conceals.
The Arctic, a great, relatively unexplored zone of the Earth, could contain vast quantities of hydrocarbons, but also gold, diamonds and other natural resources. The new gold is not white, is covered by those increasingly thin layers of ice, but it has another colour. The new gold is the oil under the Arctic soil. The profit for the country that sets down in the area is obvious.
Currently, various countries work to exploit the resources of the Arctic Circle. In Canada, Alaska and Siberia there are hundreds of oil-extraction fields, although all of them are on land. According to the US Geological Survey, the Arctic still keeps almost 90,000 million barrels of oil, 47 billion cubic metres of gas and near 44,000 million barrels of liquid derivatives from gas. The sum of those figures corresponds to a 22% of the world’s undiscovered resources. Now it is easier to understand why countries have so much interest in extending into the water.
Nonetheless, extraction of that oil is complex, as 80% is far from land and at considerable depths. At some points, these resources lie more than 500 metres deep, which makes for an important technological challenge. To this we have to add the problem of working at low temperatures.
It is now that the concern about the problems a spill would produce start. With the water at low temperatures and such particular lighting conditions, microorganism activity would be very slow and the impact would be measurable at a really long term.
The northern route
The thawing has uncovered natural resources, but it also managed to open the Northern Route. Three years ago, two German freighters crossed the Northwest Passage Route, Pacific to Atlantic, through the Arctic Ocean. They passed through a new region, previously covered by ice. Using that route one can cut nearly 4,000 nautical miles out from the 11,000 that the usual route has (the usual route being to cross towards the Northern Sea from the Pacific, through the Suez Canal). With this new path they can save money and time and avoid the pirates in the South China Sea and the Red Sea that dozens of vessels have faced over the years.
While economically profitable, there is no doubt about that, this new route opens the door to some other dangers: an area traversed by many ships multiplies the risk of a spillage that would be catastrophic.
José Luis García-Fierro, researcher of CSIC in the Institute of Catalysis and Petrochemistry points out: «Microorganism degradation of hydrocarbons is very complicated in the area due to the temperature. The higher the temperature, the faster the degradation process is. That is why, at 2 or 3 oC, it would be hundreds or even thousands of years before we got rid of the spill.»
We still have some years before the Arctic is completely ice-free during the summer, but ships are progressively using higher latitudes. Russia, for instance, has taken advantage of the circumstances to start merchant traffic all along the Siberia platform. They use a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers that open the way for freighters to go through merely a few metres away from ice.
In this regard, Russia promulgated a law regulating navigation in the area. In addition, Russian government designed a commercial programme including infrastructure building and harbours on the Arctic seaside and an investment in powerful icebreakers. Up to now, Canada is the country with the highest number of icebreakers, although most of them have other uses.
Meanwhile, life in the Arctic runs its course. Unconcerned, it could almost be said, about the important role it is playing right now.
Arctic ice, which has covered for millions of years the region, reflects up to 80% of the light it receives. If it disappeared, that radiation would be absorbed by the ocean, speeding up the warming process of the area. Besides, a rise in water temperature can reduce the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2.
«We still have some years before the Arctic is completely ice-free during the summer, but ships are progressively using higher latitudes»
If the Arctic reaches 5 oC, plankton will start to release CO2 into the atmosphere instead of capturing it. Taking into account that 2/3 of the Earth’s oxygen comes from marine phytoplankton, temperature raise is a real problem. What would happen is clear, but its scale is not under control: global sea level rise because of the melting, this sweet water input to the Atlantic Ocean may alter the global oceanic current system carrying warmth to tropical areas, and consequences would scale from there on all levels.
«The greatest impacts of global change are to be found in the Arctic. Less ice means more dark surface and more warming. More warming may imply less CO2 absorption by the Arctic Ocean. Southern species would invade the North. In short, global warming effects in the remote Arctic have an impact in the whole northern hemisphere. Local work has to be done, but the effect will be global», points Paul Wassman, researcher in the University of Tromsø (Norway).
But the Arctic keeps a secret enclosed in ice, too. The white, eternal ice-sheet that is the permafrost, covers deposits of methane hydrates. «Methane is a greenhouse gas, 22 times more powerful than CO2. With the increase in temperatures, these gases could be released into the atmosphere, aggravating the existing problem of excess of greenhouse effect gases», explains García-Fierro.
Furthermore, if water reaches a temperature of 5 oC, a key species from the Arctic could disappear. It is the Calanus glacialis, a small crustacean with a fundamental role in the Arctic food chain, similar to the krill in Antarctica.
The invisible heroes in the ice
There are rules in nature, fundamental species and food chains that have been maintained for thousands of years. There are things in nature which, even if small and allegedly insignificant, are important. We may almost say that they move the world. Those small beings, almost forgotten or unknown by many, do not go unnoticed for the expert eye of a climate change researcher.
These microorganisms, such as Calanus glacialis, are some of species that will suffer the most because of climate change. This copepod, about 3 millimetres long, will die if temperatures increase a few degrees. Even if they seem insignificant, due to their size and how little we know about them, this and other microorganisms are the beginning of the Arctic food chain that ends, it could not be otherwise, with polar bears and seals.
Regarding endangered and unique species, the Arctic has something to say: walruses, bearded seals and several whale species such as the bowhead, minke or humpback whales. Besides, it is a passageway for tens of bird species and official territory for the animal that has become the image of campaigns to protect the Arctic: the polar bear.
This polar bear, until recently white and robust, has changed a lot in the last few years. Now its migration to the north starts earlier, it needs to swim more, because there is no ice at some points, and has lost weight due to lack of food and the long journey, a part of which is not made on ice, but swimming in the cold northern waters. Polar bears have lost an average 30 kilos in the last ten or twenty years.
In 2012 a research team published a particular study in the Polar Biology journal. They followed a bear with a satellite during a whole year and the data leaves no room for doubt: the bear swam 687 kilometres at a stretch for 232 hours until it found an area with ice. The ones who survive those journeys arrive exhausted to their destinations, but still need to keep their strength to hunt and be able to eat something.
Many cubs from this species do not manage to finish the journey. Having to swim for so long, water from the Arctic Sea quickly cools their bodies down, so many drown before reaching their destination.
Duarte stresses that «now we have to learn from the failure to avert climate change and reduce greenhouse gases emissions to prevent fast changes in the Arctic to be transmitted to the rest of the planet».
The process has started, as has an individual and collective fight. Citizens, more than ever, are on war footing to battle all those enemies, all those causes attacking the Arctic. There are a lot of eyes looking towards the north; there are a lot of citizens willing to shout that the Arctic is from all of us, as is the Moon, Mars or any other territory whose future is linked to us.
More than ever, researchers approaching the Arctic are similar to Shakelton, Cook or Darwin, although instead of describing new routes and species, they take photos and register data and animals before they disappear. The Arctic is a new world, an endangered one.