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January 2017 Issue

Environmental, Diplomatic
Challenges Abound In Rapidly
Changing Arctic Circle

By Brian La Shier
Policy Associate, Environmental and Energy Study Institute
The Arctic Circle and its waters have long been a focus of scientists monitoring the impacts of climate change on the region. The increasingly dramatic environmental shifts taking place around the Arctic are also serving as a backdrop to significant political and economic trends. Warming oceans and diminished sea ice across the region have greatly expanded the window for vessels to access remote territories and natural resources in the planet’s northernmost reaches. International and domestic policies are struggling to keep pace with the rush to claim the Arctic’s resources, setting up the possibility of future conflict between nations. Meanwhile, ocean acidification and the loss of sea ice habitat due to climate change are having a devastating effect on the region’s marine wildlife.

Due to greenhouse gas emissions, the Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the world’s lower latitudes, meaning climate change impacts are already becoming clearly visible to researchers and residents. The minimum level of sea ice cover in the Arctic has decreased 13 percent per decade over the past 30 years (relative to a 1981 to 2010 baseline), with an especially precipitous decline since 2001, according to NOAA. Projections indicate Arctic waters could be practically ice free in the summer by the middle of this century. While some stakeholders are eagerly anticipating a time when the Arctic becomes more open to commercial shipping traffic and energy extraction operations, climate scientists are alarmed at the dangerous feedback loop posed by the disappearance of the region’s sea ice. The ice (along with snow cover) can absorb solar radiation and reflect up to 80 percent of incoming sunlight, preventing that heat from warming the atmosphere and ocean. Without the high reflectivity of the white ice on its surface, the darker colored ocean waters absorb that incoming solar energy.

The fallout from climate change is expected to ratchet up tensions between Arctic nations as resources become scarcer or more accessible to competing parties. The United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway all lay claim to territories within the Arctic Circle and hold an interest in extracting the energy resources located beneath its icy waters. According to a U.S. Geological Survey assessment, nearly a quarter of the planet’s undiscovered, recoverable petroleum resources reside in the Arctic, with 80 percent likely found offshore. Russia has stoked concerns with aggressive posturing and military deployments reminiscent of the Cold War, but the countries involved have vowed to resolve any territorial disputes diplomatically. The Law of the Sea Treaty governs the process for extending a country’s exclusive economic zone into international waters, as overseen by the United Nations. To date, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway have filed such a claim, alongside an expanded military presence in the otherwise desolate Northern reaches. The United States has historically been at a disadvantage in this forum having never ratified the Law of the Sea. However, the United States has been an active member of the environment-oriented Arctic Council, which it chairs through the spring of 2017.

Environmentalists and climate scientists caution that the exploitation of the Arctic Ocean’s fossil fuel and mineral reserves could be harmful on multiple fronts. Despite reduced ice cover, the Arctic Ocean remains a high-risk area for resource extraction operations due to its remoteness, severe conditions and lack of emergency response infrastructure. As recent headline-grabbing oil industry accidents have reinforced, it’s already a substantial challenge to corral an oil spill under the best of conditions. Toxic pollution from offshore mining operations would endanger Arctic wildlife in an ecosystem that is already actively under siege from climate-induced habitat loss and ocean acidification.

The Arctic Ocean and its bordering seas are especially vulnerable to acidification, since colder waters and a reduction in sea ice allow for a higher capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, a contributor to acidification. Overall, anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions have increased the average acidity of the world’s oceans by 30 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Acidification threatens organisms that rely on calcified shells (mollusks, plankton and corals) by degrading those structures, in addition to harming larvae and eggs. Scientists are confident ocean acidification will alter the Arctic’s fisheries and the general makeup of marine wildlife populations through disruptions in the food chain, but are still uncertain as to the magnitude and direction of these trends. In turn, the native communities and economic sectors reliant upon those fisheries stand to take a significant hit.

While the Arctic’s sea ice is a vibrant ecosystem unto itself, the foreboding environment has previously minimized the region’s exposure to commercial activities. As climate change continues to warm and transform the Arctic, long-standing natural barriers to industrialization will begin to fall. The increasingly accessible Northwest Passage, a maritime route that cuts through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, is a prominent example of these consequences. The southern portion of the Passage had rarely been open (meaning less than 60 percent ice coverage) dating back to the 1970s, but since 2006 the route has been navigable nearly every summer. The reduction in summer sea ice is becoming so extreme that an 820-ft. luxury cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, completed the Northwest Passage transect between August and September 2016—a first for such a cruise ship. Interest in traversing the Passage is expected to grow, since the route would be at least 4,000 mi. (7,000 km) less than the alternative via South America.

Climate projections indicate the window for large-scale commercial navigation in the Arctic will widen going forward. A spike in shipping activity would make the region more vulnerable to the air and water pollution that accompanies these operations, in addition to straining domestic emergency response agencies. The conversation surrounding Arctic preparedness and the enforcement of sovereign borders, resource claims, industry regulations and environmental protections will continue to grow in volume across the federal government. The U.S. Department of Defense and Congress have already expressed alarm over America’s lack of resilience in the rapidly changing Arctic. Close international collaboration and the capable enforcement of environmental protections will be key in ensuring the Arctic Ocean does not fall prey to industrializing forces or rogue actors as the receding sea ice reveals new challenges in the region.

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