Testing the waters. Melting sea ice is opening a Northern bonanza for oil, rare earths, and even fish—but is the United States ready? CREDIT: Jeremy Potter NOAA/OAR/OER
Five years ago, a pair of mini-submarines descended to the seabed below the North Pole, where the crews planted a rust-proof, titanium Russian flag. The timing and the powerful symbolism of the move provoked a global storm: With climate change melting the Arctic ice and exposing a potential trove of natural resources, would the region become a flashpoint for geopolitical conflict?
At a recent AAAS forum, experts downplayed the risk suggested by that made-for-headlines event. Diplomacy and cooperation are already reducing the risks of Arctic conflict, they said. Of far greater concern is that U.S. policy and diplomacy may be unprepared as accelerating climate change opens a new era in Arctic development, threatens indigenous populations, and de-stabilizes climate patterns worldwide.
The decline in the Arctic’s summer ice cover is “definitely outpacing what a lot of our worst-case climate models have been suggesting would happen…as we continue to warm the planet,” said Julienne Stroeve, a researcher based at the U.S. National Snow & Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. “The changes are happening a lot faster than expected, and there are a lot of implications for governance and exploration.”
“I don’t think we have a strategy, an agreed-to national plan,” added Heather A. Conley, senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “How much are we going to develop the Arctic? How much are we going to protect it?...We’re going to be testing the system across the Arctic and testing international cooperation to make sure that we can work together and not at cross-purposes.”
Conley and Stroeve joined Jed Hamilton, senior research consultant for ExxonMobil, at the 10 December event at AAAS. The forum, moderated by NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, was sponsored by the American Chemical Society, Georgetown University’s Program on Science in the Public Interest, and the AAAS Office of Government Relations.
Since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the Arctic has been more a forum for international cooperation than for military competition. “We aren’t seeing great tension. In fact, 2 years ago, Norway and Russia after 40 years [of dispute] agreed on their border in the Arctic,” Conley said. “We’re seeing cooperation between nations on search and rescue, oil spills and response—they’re trying to address the transformation.
“I’ve disappointed a lot of journalists when I’ve told them we aren’t seeing the militarization of the Arctic,” she added.
In her view, the greater concern is the apparent lack of policy preparation by the United States for changing conditions in the region. Melting sea ice may mean more commerce, mining, and tourism, but infrastructure ranging from lodging to search and rescue facilities and hospitals is lacking.
In the future, Conley said, “you’re going to see the Arctic as a public-private partnership, where the private sector is going to have to join with the government” in sharing data, assessing needs, and building international networks.
The receding sea ice would seem especially alluring to oil and gas companies. The U.S. Geological Survey has concluded that about a quarter of the Earth’s remaining hydrocarbon potential lies in the Arctic. And indeed, there are ambitious efforts to assess and tap oil and natural gas reserves in the oceans off of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia.
But Hamilton said that these projects still face enormous challenges: Severe winter weather, including crushing sea-surface ice floes; technical and engineering challenges in getting the crude or gas to refineries and to market; and huge production and transportation costs.
ExxonMobil and its partners are beginning development of a 1-billion-barrel oil field off the northeast coast of Canada, he said, but “it will take us 5 years and north of $10 billion to develop that field.”
The oil will be extracted over a period of 40 years, he added, “and when all is said and done and people have spent their entire careers on that project, that 40 years of production will satisfy 12 days of world demand right now.”
Even as policy begins to focus on these regional opportunities, the climate is continuing to warm, largely as a result of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to current estimates, 1.9 trillion metric tons of carbon are held in Arctic soils, and as those soils warm, they will begin to release that carbon into the atmosphere. That could become a massive new driver for climate change.
There are already some indications that the receding sea ice has a dangerous impact on global climate, Stroeve said. The difference in temperatures between the Arctic and equator plays a central role in global circulation of air and ocean currents. As the Arctic warms, she noted, the circulation may slow down—with powerful effects.
“We’ve been noticing that by warming up the Arctic, you actually allow these sorts of extreme conditions to persist longer—droughts, floods,” Stroeve said. “They’re moving more slowly in the atmosphere, so they can stay around in a region longer and cause more extreme events.”
These are urgent concerns and, in Stroeve’s view, they require further research and ambitious action by lawmakers and policymakers. Public support for action will be crucial, and a key element of Arctic policy and development must assure the rights of indigenous people.
“How do you balance between wanting to access the economic development with the rights of indigenous people and their control over that [development]?” Conley asked. “There are people whose lives and food security are being deeply impacted by this transformation. This affects societies, it affects ways of life.”