Arctic Ice Melt and the Last Great War

In the wake of news that multi-year ice covering the Arctic Ocean is, for all practical purposes, gone, the U.S. Navy has launched an assessment aimed at strengthening the nation’s position in terms of Arctic oil reserves.

Vanishing Artic Ocean ice, reliably documented by David Barber, Canada’s Research Chair in Arctic System Science at the University of Manitoba, comes as a result of Barber’s 2009 expedition to the Beaufort Sea off the Canadian coast near the town of Tuktoyaktuk, where Barber and colleagues expected to find at least a lingering ice pack.

In fact, all that remains, according to Barber, is a remnant, wedged up against the recently established Canadian province of Nunavut, a part of Canada’s Arctic archipelago which consists of numerous, small islands to the north and east of the Canadian mainland and quite distant from proposed shipping routes.

Now, Arctic coastal nations like Denmark (via Greenland), Russia, Canada and the U.S., (and even China, via its Arctic Yellow River, Great Wall and Zhonshan stations) are scrambling to gain a toehold in the area, which is expected to contain the last, huge oil reserves on the planet; reserves which may exceed Ghawar in Saudi Arabia (170 billion barrels) by a factor of more than two.

Scientists have been warning us. The Arctic has been losing its ice since 1979, at an estimated rate of 9 percent per decade. In 2000, that loss accelerated. In 2007, scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that Arctic summers could be ice-free by the middle of summer as early as the middle of the century.

Now, in 2009, about 40 years shy of that goal, the environmental tipping point has already been reached, with unpredictable consequences for the planet and mankind. But this hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of oil companies, or the nations in which they reside, because – at long last – the fabled Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, once blocked by 250-foot-thick ice sheets, is open.

What Barber found instead is 20-inch thick chunks of “rotten ice”; fresh ice layered over dark, porous older ice, through which his ship sailed at a steady 13 knots (about 15 miles per hour).

It’s a visual Barber described as “very dramatic”, saying it was something he hadn’t seen in all his three decades working in the high Arctic.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the 2009 ice cover was the third-lowest on record, after 2007 and 2008, which led experts to predict, as recently as August, that the Arctic would be completely ice free in summer by 2030 at the latest.

Barber differs, arguing that what he has witnessed is, from a practical standpoint, a seasonally ice-free Arctic right now. And the Germans would likely agree, having run two of their cargo ships from S. Korea along the northern Siberian coast this year, without benefit of icebreakers.

The melting is a result, first, of greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide, which raises temperatures and melts ice (including glaciers), and, subsequently, albedo, a situation in which the dark waters under melted ice attract and hold more warming from the sun, leading to more melting. As a result, the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of earth, accelerating the albedo effect exponentially.

As ice melts, the world waits, ready to drill for the oil. The U.S. Navy is getting in on the act with a strategic plan to maximize U.S. presence (and oil rights) in the area. Called Arctic Roadmap, the plan outlines a three-phase operation to protect U.S. oil interests, protect transport lanes, and deal with territorial disputes.

The latter is perhaps the most important part, and the Navy plans to use game theory to evaluate the interactions between the “players” (Arctic nations) and the “playing field”, an ice-free Arctic. Part of the plan, the Navy admits, is getting more U.S. personnel up north – a move that may find Canada bracing its own borders via its own Arctic operational plan, called Operation Nanook.

As Barber noted, the Arctic is the “canary in the coal mine” for climate change, so nations should be watching carefully. That they are watching simply to extract the oil – with all the environmental degradation that presupposes, in what is one of the last, pristine wildernesses on the planet – seems tragic and shortsighted.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the world’s last Great War were fought over a fuel that we should be weaning ourselves from? And what will history say about oil’s last gasp – if there are historians left to write it?

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