As ice disappears, commercial opportunities come into viewPosted: 25/09/2012
By Jens Wardenaer, Research Analyst and Editorial Assistant
The annual summer minimum for Arctic sea ice has been declining faster than expected, with this year marking a record low.
On 16 September, Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979, according to preliminary figures from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre. At 3.41 million square metres, this year’s melt beat the previous 2007 record by 760,000 square kilometres. But while the decline of sea-ice extent is the most visible metric of climate change in the Arctic, another trend is even more worrying. For the third straight summer the total volume of ice set a new record low, and is now only 20% of the 2000 level.
It is too early to say whether this will be an annual phenomenon, but the speed of the melt has already exceeded prognoses. The record for minimum ice extent was already reached on 26 August, nearly one month earlier than the 2007 record. According to scientists, the rate of decline is faster than any models have been able to capture. Most experts previously thought it possible that the Arctic would be ice-free in the summer by 2050; now more and more scientists believe that may occur as soon as 2030, or even before 2020.
In addition to the fact that the planet is warming, there are other factors that cause the melt. The most important is the positive feedback loop from the melting itself, known as the albedo effect. Bright ice reflects the sun’s rays back into the atmosphere, cooling the weather. However, the melting ice exposes dark patches of ocean, which absorb the heat and accelerate the melt. This has led to the substitution of thicker multi-year ice with thinner seasonal ice, which is less resistant to the warming climate.
It is expected that the reduced ice levels will lead to extreme weather events such as flooding, droughts and heat waves. Sea levels are not affected, as the floating ice is already displacing its weight.
New shipping opportunities?
The environmental outlook is depressing. For businesses, however, it may be less so. This year, both the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and the Northwest Passage were open at the same time. The two proposed shipping routes pass north of Russia and Canada, respectively. The NSR is around 8,000km shorter than the traditional Europe to Asia route through the Suez Canal, thus potentially saving both time and money. But companies face higher environmental risks and insurance costs by using the Arctic routes.
Commercial activity in the Arctic was set to expand even before the record melt. The amount of transport ships traversing the NSR may reach a record high this year, with over 20 ships making the journey so far and the sailing season expected to last another one to two months. A third cross-polar route was traversed by the Chinese research vessel Xue Long this summer. If the ice cap becomes a seasonal rather than permanent fixture, which now looks possible, we can expect shipping to increase further. Fishing vessels may also expand the Arctic activities.
Drilling on hold
On the other hand, the reduction in ice cover does not necessarily mean that oil and gas exploration will expand. While the US Geological Survey expects the Arctic to hold 22% of hydrocarbon resources on the planet, the safety and environmental concerns around drilling under extreme conditions in a fragile ecosystem has already caused one of the most publicised Arctic drilling projects to be put on hold.
Shell has suspended drilling in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska due to safety concerns, and will now not complete any wells this year, instead of its original target of five. BP shelved an offshore project in Alaska after the Liberty field was deemed no longer viable. Gazprom’s development of the well-known Shtokman gas field was also judged commercially non-viable due to high development costs compared to discoveries in more temperate regions. The project may yet be resurrected should terms improve, however. Meanwhile, Norway’s Statoil has delayed its own exploration project in the Chukchi until 2015. British MPs have called for a halt to Arctic drilling until environmental safety is improved.
The increased shipping this year has increased the need for search and rescue capabilities, as well as a demand for interoperability of the security forces that undertake such missions. But the increased shipping is unlikely to change the general outlook for Arctic security forces. These issues will be addressed at the second workshop in the IISS’s Forum for Arctic Climate Change and Security in Brussels in October. Severe and unpredictable climate change in the Arctic underscores the need for improved safety measures and a better understanding of the environment and resources in the region.