The extent of the summer sea ice in the Arctic has been rapidly diminishing in recent decades. In the September of 2012, a record low level of sea ice was recorded. The area of ice (at its summer minimum – much of the surrounding sea refreezes in the winter) was half of what the average value was for the years from 1979-2000. The ice is melting much faster than climate scientists had previously predicted. A late summer, ice-free Arctic could now be seen as early as the 2030s. The response to this has been joy, directed at the discovery of natural resources, which are currently locked below the ground of much of the Arctic.
The potential quantity of energy sources and raw materials are huge. The US geological survey released in 2008 is an estimation of the resources that lay untouched under the Arctic Ocean. Approximately 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas deposits – along with rare earth elements and Iron Ore –lay locked in ground in the Arctic Circle. Additionally, if the sea ice cover continues to reduce, new passages for container ships will be safe to pass, taking off up to 20% of the journey time from Europe to South East Asia.
Few in the international community seem to see the grotesque irony in the reaction to the changing region. The reaction to the retreating trend of the arctic sea ice –almost certainly due to anthropogenic warming – has been one of wide-eyed greed at the newly revealed bounty, not horror and awe. It seems that the worlds’ political and business elite (who all too often intertwined together) are dedicated to a mantra that the human race should live fast and die young.
Interest in the area is certainly heating up. In May this year, the body representing the 8 countries with territory in the Arctic – the Arctic Council – accepted China, Japan, India and three other countries as observer countries on the council. The once peripheral organisation is now becoming an important one. In the same month, the White House published online the National Strategy for the Arctic Region. Energy resources are explicitly mentioned as a clear component of the strategy. There are also some inevitable platitudes: rhetoric exalting the need for further ‘international cooperation’. Of course, along with these pleasantries are unambiguous plans for increased US military presence in the region.
What’s perhaps more moronic than this rush for resources is the fact that there are still some quite vocal deniers in the media that this is happening – that Global Warming is anthropogenic, or that the Arctic is experiencing rapid warming at all. In the same strategy paper from the White House, the warming trend is explained as a virtual truism and the connotations for resource-exploitation are made explicitly clear; would China and India join the Arctic Council if this wasn’t case? But then, perhaps those right-wing commentators know something that the Arctic Council and the giant Corporations looking at the area don’t. The noticeable campaign of disinformation against accepted climate science is ongoing and is slowing down progress on efforts to mitigate global warming.
As well as extracting fossil fuels that will exacerbate global warming, there are also more immediate environmental concerns for the Arctic in regards to damage to the Arctic ecosystem, which is one of the last areas on the planet which hasn’t yet been widely polluted or damaged by human activity. Collateral damage from deep-sea drilling will be disastrous for the largely pristine marine ecosystems there. If there was an oil-spill, due to the unforgiving weather and rough icy seas an event like this would be several orders of magnitude worse than what happened in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
But these environmental harms will just be brushed off as inevitable ‘negative externalities’, or just ignored entirely. Once the sea ice has retreated enough resource extraction will begin in earnest and some more nails will be hammered into the coffin of Earth’s pre-Holocene state. The only thing that can save the arctic region – or indeed the Earth as a whole as we know it – is a paradigm shift in how the world works; at the moment around 80% of the world’s energy supply is from fossil fuels, and somehow that needs to change.