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Climate Change, Arctic Resource Boom Create New Challenges for U.S. Policy and Diplomacy

Climate change is opening a Northern bonanza for oil, rare earths, and even fish, but experts speaking at AAAS warned that U.S. policy in fields ranging from the environment to Arctic diplomacy may be adapting too slowly to emerging challenges.

Their assessment was a mix of optimism and measured concern: Where some accounts have predicted a new era of geopolitical conflict or even a militarized Arctic, the speakers instead suggested that international cooperation in science and diplomacy is already reducing the risk of conflict in the region.

Of greater concern may be a lack of U.S. preparation to deal with the coming changes: rapid advances in development, threats to indigenous populations, and accelerating climate change so powerful that some researchers warn that it could destabilize climate patterns across much of the globe.


Julienne Stroeve | All photos by Edward W. Lempinen

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 (resource) 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 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 Arctic consultant at ExxonMobil’s Upstream Research Company, at the 10 December event in the AAAS Auditorium. It was the last of three discussions in the autumn 2012 “Science and Society: Global Challenges” series sponsored by the American Chemical Society, Georgetown University’s Program on Science in the Public Interest, and the AAAS Office of Government Relations. The discussion was moderated by NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

The New Arctic: Mining, Transit, and Migration

The Arctic is one of Earth’s regions most severely affected by climate change. While many parts of the planet are expected to warm by 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, Stroeve told the AAAS audience, warming in the Far North could reach 6 or 8 degrees in that time.

Among the 4 million people who live in the Arctic region, many are already seeing dramatic disruptions. Climate change means more extreme, unpredictable weather, including bigger storms that cause floods and coastal erosion. Reduced ice on coastal waters and on inland rivers makes transportation in search of food more difficult, and migration patterns for game and fish are shifting.

According to Stroeve, the rate of decline for Arctic sea ice has been linear—until the past few years, when the pace of melting accelerated. Areas off the coasts of Alaska and Siberia that used to be covered permanently by ice are now becoming open water in summer. Climate models suggest that the Arctic Ocean will become ice-free in summer by 2050, she said, while other models say it could happen even more rapidly, as early as 2020.

For most people in more populated parts of the planet, the Arctic feels far removed from daily life. Still, even from a distance, it’s evident that far-reaching changes are underway. Last summer, news reports detailed how sea ice levels in the Arctic had reached yet another new record low. In November, a Norwegian tanker ferried a load of liquid natural gas to Japan across an Arctic route that is usually frozen at that time of year. And in Greenland, Conley said, the number of Chinese mining workers in the decades ahead is likely to outstrip the country’s current population of 57,000.

At first glance, the receding sea ice would seem especially alluring to oil and gas companies that, Hamilton pointed out, have been producing oil and gas near or above the Arctic Circle for nearly 90 years. The U.S. Geological Survey has concluded that about a quarter of the Earth’s remaining hydrocarbon potential lies in the Arctic. About 70% of it is gas, and 30% oil.

Jed Hamilton

And indeed, there are ambitious new efforts to assess and tap oil and natural gas reserves in the oceans off of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, off the northern coast of Siberia.

But Hamilton, the ExxonMobil researcher, said it’s too simple to think that receding summer ice will lead to a massive new rush of oil and gas exploration and drilling. The 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. “In the end,” he said, “Arctic hydrocarbon resources will have to compete with other energy sources and must demonstrate favorable economics under a long-term price forecast in order to be developed.”

He offered a sobering example: ExxonMobil and its partners are beginning development of a 1 billion-barrel oil field off the northeast coast of Canada. “It will take us five years and north of $10 billion to develop that field,” he said. 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.”

And, Hamilton said, Arctic oil projects at any smaller scale may not make economic sense.

“Maybe we should think of something other than oil,” remarked Harris, the NPR correspondent and moderator.

“We’re interested in resources around the world because the world has a very insatiable demand for energy,” Hamilton said.

“A lot of people figure that by 2040, the current demand for hydrocarbon will have increased by 40%, with hundreds of millions of people in countries like India and China just now becoming large energy consumers,” he explained. “When you look at the suite of options around the world for trying to meet those energy demands, it’s going to take everything that’s available. And the Arctic is one component of that.”

While the Arctic oil and gas projects are challenging, Hamilton suggested that, over time, escalating global demand for energy of all types will drive prices higher. And that will create strong incentive to undertake such projects.

Resource Competition: Should We Be Worried?

In 2007, explorers in two mini-submarines descended to seabed beneath the North Pole and planted a Russian flag. To the Russian government, the move was fully justified: Soil samples proved that a ridge of underwater mountains there was an extension of the nation’s continental shelf, it said.

Heather A. Conley

But the move provoked international angst. The United States and other Arctic nations questioned the Russian claim and lodged claims of their own. Canada announced that it would build two new Arctic military facilities.

At the AAAS forum, Harris posed a simple question: “Should we be worried?”

The Arctic has long been a region of geopolitical significance; during the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union focused their radars on the area and put other military facilities there. But Conley said that, 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.

In 1996, the Arctic Council was established, providing a forum for coordination and cooperation on a range of issues and involving the governments of Arctic nations and their indigenous populations. The members are Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States.

And that cooperation is characteristic of Arctic relations today, Conley said.

“Our Norwegian friends who call the Arctic the High North—they say: ‘High North, low tension,’” she explained. “We aren’t seeing great tension. In fact, two years ago Norway and Russia after 40 years (of dispute) agreed on their border in the Arctic. 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.”

Still, she said, the geopolitics of the region are in transition. Nations outside of the Arctic are increasingly interested in the resources there. Not only does China have a growing workforce in Greenland, but it also has the biggest embassy in Iceland—and Iceland has significant stores of rare earth minerals needed for modern technology. Last summer, the icebreaker “Snow Dragon” became the first Chinese vessel to cross the Arctic Ocean. (According to the Polar Research Institute of China, work by the ship’s researchers included a geophysical survey, installation of a weather station, and studies of methane content in the Arctic area.)

Icebreakers: A Measure of Preparedness

In Conley’s view, there is a greater concern than geopolitical tension in the Arctic: The apparent lack of policy preparation by the United States for changing conditions in the region. The melting sea ice will mean more commerce, more mining, more tourism, but infrastructure ranging from lodging to search and rescue facilities and hospitals are lacking.

Icebreakers—or the lack of icebreakers—illustrates the point.

Russia has more than two dozen of them. Finland has seven, and Canada six. Denmark has four. China has the world’s biggest non-nuclear ice-breaker—and it doesn’t even have real estate on the Arctic Circle. And the United States has two—one of them a medium-power ship used mostly for scientific research.

For several years, the United States leased a Swedish icebreaker to resupply the vital McMurdo research station in Antarctica, but heavy winters forced Sweden to end the agreement and use its ship to keep its own waterways open. The future risk is that, in an emergency, the single U.S. medium polar icebreaker may be far from where it is needed, Conley said.

Richard Harris

Meanwhile, Hamilton said that the proliferation of oil exploration in Arctic waters is putting “a real strain” on the global fleet of commercial vessels available to support private industry.

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. “Right now, we don’t have the financial luxury of doing this (alone).”

But a key element of Arctic development policy must assure the rights of indigenous people, she said.

“How do you balance between wanting to access the economic development with the rights of indigenous people and their control over that (development)?” she asked. “There are people whose lives (and) food security are being deeply impacted by this transformation. This affects societies, it affects ways of life.” The goal is to pursue economic opportunity, she said, while “balancing that with sustainable development, a sustainable approach.”

Meanwhile, the Climate Continues to Warm

Even as policy begins to focus on changes underway in the Arctic, the climate is continuing to warm as a result of global greenhouse gas emissions. And as the Arctic thaws, it could become a major driver of accelerating climate change.

Stroeve described a critical feedback loop that’s raising the risk of far more dramatic changes in the Northern regions, and globally.

Because the ice is light in color, it tends to reflect heat back out into the atmosphere; but as the ice melts, darker-colored land and water are exposed, and they absorb more heat. That, in turn, causes more melting. In some regions, Arctic permafrost is already beginning to thaw. And structures built on the ice—runways, oil pipelines, homes—are destabilized and in some cases already collapsing.

But the thaw also sets loose a more profound risk: 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 global warming and climate change.

People see the Arctic as far away and remote from their own lives, Stroeve said, but there are already some indications that the receding sea ice has a dangerous impact on global weather. 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 said, the circulation may slow down—with powerful effects.

“We’ve been noticing that by warming up the Arctic in the autumn,” Stroeve said, “you actually allow these sorts of extreme conditions to persist longer—droughts, floods. They’re moving more slowly in the atmosphere, so they can stay around in a region longer and cause more extreme events.”

Bigger storms, longer droughts, a massive new release of carbon—these are urgent concerns and, in Stroeve’s view, they require further research and ambitious action by lawmakers and policymakers. And public support for action will be crucial.

“People might think, ‘Well, I’m sad if the polar bear goes extinct,’ but that’s not enough to motivate people to do anything about it,” she said. And so research now needs to focus on how Arctic change will raise the risk of disaster for millions of people in lower latitudes.

“That’s not an easy thing to try to figure out,” Stroeve said. “Did Hurricane Sandy happen because the Arctic had a record low sea ice, for example? Those dots are hard to connect, but those are the directions that science needs to go into, to bring some of that relevance home.”


Read coverage of the 2012 AAAS “Science and Society: Grand Challenges” discussions on biosecurity and the complex linkages between food, water, and energy.

Learn more about the AAAS Office of Government Relations.


Edward W. Lempinen

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