Archive for the ‘Arctic Issues’ Category

Precaution in the Arctic

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

Ringed seals live in the Arctic Ocean. With less ice and more penetrating sunlight, ocean productivity there has been rising – more phytoplankton, more zooplankton, more fish, and so more abundant food for ringed seals. On the other hand, ringed seals depend on the shrinking and thinning ice for mating, molting and pupping.

Called the Ringed Seal because of the patterns on its back (natur.gl)

Called the Ringed Seal because of the patterns on its back (natur.gl)

The Ringed Seal is the smallest of seals (under 5 ft, 1.4m, at most) and because of its close association with ice in the Arctic, has been a common prey of polar bears. But the ice is shrinking, and much is changing (fineartsamerica.org)

The Ringed Seal is the smallest of seals (under 5 ft, 1.4m, at most) and because of its close association with ice in the Arctic, has been a common prey of polar bears. But the ice is shrinking, and much is changing (fineartsamerica.org)

Short-term, their prospects are good. Long-term they are poor, unless they somehow adapt to the new conditions.

Adapt or perish, the slogan for the Arctic.

We can make predictions about what changes will occur in the Arctic marine ecosystem, but really just about everything is uncertain. What species will invade successfully from the north Pacific and north Atlantic? How will the planktonic food chains change? The species interacting in this new ecosystem all have their own complex life histories, feeding preferences, growth rates, stress tolerances. Which existing predator species will adapt, and which diminish toward extinction? Will the new ecosystem ever become stable as climate change lurches along?

Sitting in the middle of the Arctic Ocean lie the Arctic High Seas, claimed by Russia, Canada, and even Denmark based upon underwater ridges extending out from their EEZs. No commercial fish stocks currently occur under the ice, but that will change soon enough. Change to what? Nobody knows.

The EEZs of five nations - Russia, Canada, USA, Denmark (via Greenland) and Norway surround the Arctic High Seas (pewtrusts.org)

The EEZs of five nations – Russia, Canada, USA, Denmark (via Greenland) and Norway surround the Arctic High Seas (pewtrusts.org)

How then do we manage whatever commercial fishing that will become possible in the newly opening Arctic High Seas?

In response to this so critical question, a minor miracle has occurred. The five Arctic coastal nations – Canada, Russia, the US, Norway and Denmark (for Greenland) have very recently agreed to an Interim Ban on commercial fishing in Arctic international waters – until more research has been done to assess what is possible, what is sustainable. The Declaration of July 15, 2015 – is brief, just two pages – but it is enlightened.

This is a rare application of the precautionary approach, and is worth some celebration.

A new Arctic Ocean is starting to emerge - walruses crowd shorlines rather than ice, polar bears hunt on land, and north temperate species invade (scinece.org0

A new Arctic Ocean is starting to emerge – walruses crowd onto shorelines rather than ice, polar bears hunt on land, bowhead whales (and for now, ringed seals) flourish, while north temperate species invade ever further. Darker blue, the extent of sea in Sept 2014; lighter blue, Sept 1979; and of course the remaining ice has thinned enormously (science.org)

Interim may be a disappointing word to those who hoped for something stronger, but interim in this case should last quite a while. An Interim Ban is good news.

That doesn’t mean unfortunate events may not still occur in the national waters of the Arctic coastal nations – while the US and Canada do not permit commercial fishing in their Arctic EEZs, Russia may overfish Arctic Cod, and the US is allowing oil drilling to commence. As well, other fishing nations – China, Vietnam, South Korea, members of the EU – have also got to agree to keep their commercial fishing fleets out of the Arctic High Seas.

Still, we now have a limited multi-national agreement not to fish commercially in a limited piece of the High Seas. This includes a couple of nations who are for other reasons barely talking to each other. If we can do it there, perhaps we can do it elsewhere.

This Interim Ban could be a start toward something bigger. There is growing interest in the idea of banning commercial fishing in all of the global High Seas, backed by new evidence indicating that larger coastal fish stocks would occur and no loss of global fishing revenue would result.

This would be extraordinary to say the least.

Meanwhile, for now five fishing nations have agreed to try to protect the High Seas of the Arctic from the usual over-exploitation that we have seen so often over the past century.

At a time when most news, whether environmental or political, is simply awful, how can this not be at least a little reassuring?

China in the Arctic

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

The Arctic is a tantalizing target for exploitation, even among non-Arctic nations. Not surprisingly, none have greater plans than China, even though its ports are a long way from the Arctic.

The Arctic Council seems to have the power to negotiate how the Arctic will be developed, and China wishes to be included. Voting members of the Council are the circumpolar nations: Canada, US, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark (via Greenland). But twelve other non-polar nations have now received observer status, six of them added at the recent May meeting, and among these are India, Japan, and China. Polar Aboriginal groups also have observer status, but no votes – unfortunate, but also hardly surprising.

China of course has a growing interest in the issues the Arctic Council is discussing. Shipping, for instance. The distance from Europe to China is far shorter through the Arctic Northeast Passage than any alternatives, and there is no threat of piracy en route as there has been around horn of Africa. The Northeast Passage is already open for months each summer, and an enticing seven month season is now likely.

The Northeast Passage, now open, is a shorter route for China to reach Arctic Russia and ports in Europe (france24.com)

The Northeast Passage, now open, is a shorter route for China to reach Arctic Russia and ports in Europe (france24.com)

And then the gas and oil. Russia has access to huge natural gas sources close to shore along its central Arctic coast, where it is building new liquid natural gas facilities, along with associated port services. With the Northeast Passage open seven months a year, it need not build pipelines south but instead can fill Chinese tankers directly. China has invested deeply in the operation, intent on getting most of the available LNG.

Russian energy company Novatek is building LNG facilities on the coast of Arctic Russia (novatek.com)

Russian energy company Novatek is building LNG facilities on the coast of Arctic Russia (novatek.com)

Meanwhile, in northern Greenland, near Nuuk, China has arranged to develop an extensive iron mine, planning to send about 3000 Chinese miners in to do the work. When the coasts open in summer, it will transport the iron ore to China.

What’s left? Oh yes: fishing. The international waters of the Arctic, the so-called Arctic donut hole, are likely to be a rich and irresistible source of fish. Though that’s 4000 km from Shanghai, China already sends trawlers 7500 km to the Antarctic to fish for krill, so the Arctic is well in range. Its trawlers will be there, as soon as possible.

Arctic International waters (the donut hole) will soon be ice free in summer, but as yet no fisheries regulations exist to protect it (oceansnorth.org)

Arctic International waters (the donut hole) will soon be ice free in summer, but as yet no fisheries regulations exist to protect it (oceansnorth.org)

In late April, the circumpolar nations also met to try to agree on how to protect and regulate the Arctic fisheries. Prohibiting fishing there would be reasonable, for it will take decades, or longer, for the ecosystem to stabilize as it adapts to the prolonged open water, the warmer temperatures, the increasing acidification, the invasion of Subarctic species particularly through the Bering Strait, and the probable loss of some Arctic species.

Arctic Sea ice is not just shrinking in area, it is thinning rapidly (apl.washington.edu)

Arctic Sea ice is not just shrinking in area, it is thinning rapidly (apl.washington.edu)

Will the international community agree wait to start fishing, or to exploit other resources? If so, that will be a first. What will stop them? The words of the recommendations of the Arctic Council read well. But what is the reality going to be?

International interest and pressure to develop the Arctic is immense. China of course is not the only major player – but it is new to this particular region, and it has become insatiable.

The outcome is increasingly clear. Without its ice, the Arctic has few defenses against ‘business-as-usual’ exploitation.

We’ll see what the Arctic Council will do under its new chair, the Canadian Indigenous politician Leona Aglukkaq. A political pragmatist and realist, Aglukkaq endorses the economic development of the Arctic.

China will be pleased.

Fishing the Arctic

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

The Arctic Ocean ought to be pristine and well protected from overfishing. Too much ice cover until very recently and the wisdom derived from decades of bad experience elsewhere ought to keep the ocean, both in the coastal EEZs and in the huge international waters in its center, safe from the disasters of overfishing that have occurred everywhere else. We are certainly smart enough to learn by our mistakes.

Lawren Harris painted Baffin Island around 1931. This is a summer impression of the  north end of the island, the fifth largest in the world (artcountrycanada.com)

Lawren Harris painted Baffin Island around 1931. This is a summer impression of the north end of the island, the fifth largest in the world (artcountrycanada.com)

The question is not whether there should be any fishing at all – such environmental idealism now has little influence in our real world – but that the fishing needs to be sustainable. Vast potential fisheries will open up as the Arctic ice thins and recedes with the warming climate, but how will the usual overfishing be prevented?

The Inuvialuit of Canada’s Western Arctic have dealt with this question by getting the Federal Government in Ottawa to declare the Beaufort Sea off limits to commercial fisheries, at least for now. Meanwhile more than 2000 scientists, mostly from the Arctic coastal countries, have signed an open letter calling for zero commercial fishing until the changing ecology of the sea is understood.

Is some optimism therefore justified? The pressures of commercial fishing suggest it isn’t.

 Russian trawlers at Murmansk, the main Russian port on the Barents Sea (barentsobserver.com).

Russian trawlers at Murmansk, the main Russian port on the Barents Sea (barentsobserver.com).

To start with, Arctic fish populations have not been in any pristine condition for quite a long time, for catch data from 1950 to 2008 were radically under-reported. About 75 times more fish were caught than the various nations reported – a remarkable total of around 950,000 tons. The main offender was the Soviet Union/Russia, reporting a commercial catch of 12,700 tons instead of the 770,000 tons actually caught. The US and Canada acknowledged subsistence fishing by their coastal native communities, but each reported catches of zero instead of a more accurate 90,000 tons.

And of course the pressure to fish continues to build. Canada’s first Arctic commercial fishery has recently developed in the coastal waters around Baffin Island – in the jurisdiction of Nunavut. The fishery is for northern populations of Greenland Halibut, also known as turbot.

Greenland Halibut, or turbot, is a bottom dwelling cold water species that will shift further north as sea temperatures warm (sirena.dk)

Greenland Halibut, or turbot, is a bottom dwelling cold water species that will shift further north as sea temperatures warm (sirena.dk)

Greenland Halibut grow slowly but live long in cold water (marlin.ac.uk)

Greenland Halibut grow slowly but live long in cold water (marlin.ac.uk)

The Nunavut communities need jobs, and the fish appear to be plentiful. More vessels, both inshore gill-netters and deeper-water trawlers, are entering the fishery. Quotas are rising and the fishery is expanding. There are calls for a deep-water port in northern Baffin Island for the trawlers to off-load so they don’t have to go to southern Greenland to do so. It all looks like a success story.

But it isn’t. In fact it has all the features of the boom phase of a boom-and-bust fishery, the sort we have endured over and over again around the world over the past century. It is all too familiar and will, as always, be difficult to resolve.

For instance, we don’t know at what age or size the fish become sexually mature, and we don’t know how fast – or slowly – they grow, or how long they live. How can we manage the fishery in such ignorance? We can’t.

Gill-netters are more selective than trawlers, and catch larger (and many fewer fish (from Anna Olafsdottir's Powerpoint at scibd.com)

Gill-netters are more selective than trawlers, and catch larger (and many fewer fish (from Anna Olafsdottir’s Powerpoint at scibd.com)

Trawlers catch 3-4 million fish and 5-6 thousand tons of them annually, much more than do the gill-netters (from Anna Olafsdottir's Powerpoint (scribd.com)

Trawlers catch 3-4 million fish and 5-6 thousand tons of them annually, much more than do the gill-netters (from Anna Olafsdottir’s Powerpoint (scribd.com)

The conflict between gill-netters and trawlers is heating up, with the gill-netters upset by the growing intrusion of the trawlers. And they should be. Fewer than 15% of caught fish should be less than 45cm long – the major regulation in place to try to protect the fishery – and most trawlers far exceed this. Because trawlers take smaller fish than the more selective gill-netters, they catch many more fish to meet their quota.

Regulation of the fishery is a responsibility of the DFO of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. This is not an incompetent organization, but the ruling Harper government has so reduced the funding of DFO that no-one is available anymore to do the work. As a result, existing regulations are not enforced, and new ones are not developed.

 Collateral damage: Greenland Sharks are the most northern of sharks, grow to about 6 meters long, are considered 'near threatened' on IUCN's Red List - and are worrisome bycatch of the Greenland Halibut fishery (biologybiozine.com)

Collateral damage: Greenland Sharks are the most northern of sharks, grow to about 6 meters long, are considered ‘near threatened’ on IUCN’s Red List – and are worrisome bycatch of the Greenland Halibut fishery (biologybiozine.com)

Solutions exist – support the gill-netters, restrict the trawlers, gather fisheries data, limit the expansion of the fishing fleet, support the coastal communities, and at least remember the precautionary principle. None of this is impossible, but will take community leadership and involvement.

So what do we have? A number of nations are about to compete aggressively for opening resources in the Arctic Ocean; the marine ecosystem is changing in ways we don’t yet understand; coastal fisheries are expanding yet lack meaningful regulations; coastal communities face uncertain futures and are in need of access to commercial fishing; international agreements on how to deal with any such problems don’t exist; and the unreported fishing of the recent past has had an unknown impact on current fish populations.

What we have at the moment is familiar chaos. We know that the Arctic is not a productive, resilient marine ecosystem, but we are treating it as if it is.

Certainly we are capable of learning from our many past mistakes. It still is not too late to ensure our Arctic exploitation is sustainable, and not just business-as-usual.

We can do better this time.

Chasing Ice

Friday, December 21st, 2012

At the culmination of the documentary movie Chasing Ice there is a striking time-lapse sequence, covering three years in a couple of minutes, of glaciers retreating and collapsing.

Almost all the glaciers on the planet are in retreat – we’ve known this for years – but still the images are impressive, and those of the collapse are new. The glacier lying before us appears to deflate, leaving a pile of dirty rubble on the ground.

Huge icebergs break off from the Greenland ice sheet, while the glaciers retreat at an ever faster rate (chasingice.com)

Huge icebergs break off from the Greenland ice sheet, while the glaciers retreat at an ever faster rate (chasingice.com)

Chasing Ice has played in theaters in many North American cities throughout the autumn and will continue to do so through much of the winter. James Balog, who made this movie, thinks – hopes? – that seeing his images will make climate change appear more real to us, and maybe even prod us into action.

Will anyone not already convinced of the reality of a warming planet go to see the movie? I hope so.

Melting glaciers in Tibet will result in short-term flooding and then long-term drought in China and northern India (the hindu.com)

Melting glaciers in Tibet will result in short-term flooding and then long-term drought in China and northern India (the hindu.com)

Chasing Ice isn’t quite a great movie, though it is long-listed for an Academy Award. It lacks the rich data and fine graphics of Al Gore’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth that upset so many people. It also lacks the human drama of Ric O’Barry’s Oscar-winning The Cove. But it is interesting enough, and some of it is quite arresting. It is worth seeing.

If we experience evidence of global warming directly, as many did with the wave surge of Hurricane Sandy, perhaps then we will be convinced to act. In Chasing Ice we follow one man’s obsession with showing some of the other evidence of global warming. Like most documentary movies it was made to try to disturb us, to engage us more emotionally.

Seeing it happen on film is not the same as experiencing it, of course. On the other hand, watching a glacier retreat in real time is less than a gripping experience. Seeing it in time-lapse turns it into the real drama that it is.

This movie can only help.

Even a single picture can have a powerful impact: in 2012 the Arctic ice cap melted further than ever on record, to half of what it was 20 years ago. (wunderground.org)

Even a single picture can have a powerful impact: in 2012 the Arctic ice cap melted further than ever on record, to half of what it was 20 years ago (wunderground.org)

Hurricane Sandy’s Sea Change

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Now, after Hurricane Sandy, some of our political leaders are finally speaking up more clearly about the impact of climate change.

The conversation is not just about restoring all that was damaged along the shores of New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island, and in lower Manhattan and in the surrounding boroughs.

It is also about preparing for more storms like Sandy, adapting to the new reality of higher sea levels, warmer sea surface temperatures, bigger storms, and more frequent ones. Finally.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said more than a year ago that he recognized that climate change is real and that human activity plays a role in these changes.

This week he said “I don’t believe in a state like ours, where the Jersey Shore is such a part of life, that you just pick up and walk away.” But then he still raised the possibility that homeowners in hard-hit coastal areas could decide to sell their property to the state for conservation.

Surfers Point, Ventura, CA is now protected by ‘managed retreat'(noaa.org)

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, in response to Sandy said “…I think part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.”

And Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of NYC, wrote concerning Sandy: “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Sea walls, levees and beach sand replenishment are temporary solutions at best, and building offshore walls and storm gates are hugely expensive.

Drawing of possible sea gates to protect Staten Island – intriguing but so very expensive (cdmsmith.com)

Bloomberg again: “I don’t think there’s any practical way to build barriers in the oceans. Even if you spent a fortune, it’s not clear to me that you would get much value for it.”

There are many possibilities besides building levees, sea gates and walls. Constructing buffering oyster beds, sand dunes and wetlands are real options instead. Managed retreat – moving homes, businesses and roads out of the harms way is now as well an essential consideration.

Imagine a grassy network of parks and wetlands extending around lower Manhattan, with tidal marshes to absorb waves. (aro.net/#/projects/risingcurrents)

Or imagine oyster beds growing on reefs of rock and shell, buffering and absorbing storm surges (scapestudio.com/projects/oyster-tecture/)

No one thinks that climate warming necessarily caused Hurricane Sandy – but it likely influenced its size and its path. The melting and warming Arctic has modified the flow of the Jet Stream which in turn influenced the path the hurricane took veering into the east of North America instead of out to sea.

Now it appears that the Arctic melt is proceeding even more quickly than any of the models have predicted. The sea will continue to warm and rise, and storm surges will be ever higher.

So now we have an opportunity to face reality, not just to rebuild what has been lost but to adapt in many ways to what is coming. With strong and non-partisan leadership emerging, we can prepare ourselves.

We may need to nourish these voices.

.

ExxonMobil The Evil Empire

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

After waiting years to get permission, Royal Dutch Shell finally began drilling its first exploration well in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest Alaskan coast this past summer. Tests of its safety equipment have not gone well, and wind-driven sea ice has threatened the operation. Any further drilling of the exploration well has now been postponed until next summer.

Shell’s Noble Discoverer drilling rig on the Chukchi Sea, seen from the deck of the Tor Viking icebreaker. (Royal Dutch Shell, latimes.com))

This has been a benign season in the Arctic, and still the result is failure. This does not bode well for Arctic drilling, but if we can be sure of anything in this uncertain world, we can expect Shell, and BP, and Chevron, and the biggest of them all, ExxonMobil – as well as the Norwegian and Russian oil companies – to explore the Arctic and then to drill it over the next decades.

A recent book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll tells the tale of ExxonMobil from the catastrophic spill by the Exxon Valdez in 1989, through its rise in reach, power and wealth to become the most profitable of global corporations, to its present belated enthusiasm for fracking. It is an extraordinary tale of bald self-interest and cynicism.

Steve Coll’s book, published in 2012, is long, detailed, short on reflection, and frightening (nytimes.com)

Over the past 20 years, ExxonMobil has moved slowly and reluctantly through a series of attitudes about climate change. Of course it denied the reality of global warming for as long as possible, and funded the research of the skeptics. Then, eventually, it agreed that burning carbon-based fuels was in fact warming the planet – but its own analysis determined that the global demand for energy is growing so fast that even if alternate sources are available, they will only fill a small part of the need. We will remain dependent on ExxonMobil and the other oil companies for oil and natural gas for the next decades.

Seeing how the wind is now blowing in the US, ExxonMobil now supports the call for energy independence and even says that it could tolerate a carbon tax – but it believes in neither taxes nor the need for US energy independence.

ExxonMobil is a huge global corporation whose products are natural gas and oil, and whose sole motive is profit. It is present in 200 countries, extracting oil and gas from dozens of them. It is resistant to any action that might decrease its global access and profit. Its influence in US flows through through the efforts of lobbyists working on congressmen, cabinet members, and presidents. Access is never denied.

No government can resist the oil companies, not even the US. Coll’s book is very sobering.

Meanwhile, despite the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, offshore exploration and drilling is expanding around the world. Taking the risks, especially in the Arctic, is madness. Unfortunately, the oil companies, in their endless quest for more profits from more exploitable oil and gas deposits, remain indifferent to the long-term impact of what they do.

ExxonMobil has drilled a well offshore California that extends more than six miles horizontally and more than 7,000 ft below sea level. It was drilled from the Heritage platform using the company’s Fast Drill technology. (drillingcontractor.org)

The only concern ExxonMobil and the other oil companies express is that at some point the nations of the planet finally will become really afraid of the effects of global warming and agree to take concerted, major action.

Our challenge then is to bring that about now, not decades from now. We can start with the current US election – although neither party talks about climate change, at least President Obama understands that it exists and that it poses great dangers. In Canada we can try to constrain the development of the Alberta oil sands and the exploration for oil and gas in Canada’s Arctic.

And we can push back against the oil companies. They need our encouragement to do the right thing.

As do our governments.

The Open Arctic

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Everyone is preparing for an Arctic Ocean open for business at least through the summer months.

Seasonal shipping is increasing, and ports are growing, especially along the Russian coast.

The North Pole, April 2004: HMS Tireless, a nuclear sub, measured sea ice thickness of the melting ice cap (seaice.org.uk)

The Arctic rim countries – Canada, Norway, Denmark, Russia and the US – are under some pressure to agree to a moratorium on exploiting the Arctic fisheries at least until enough is known about the ecosystem to do so sustainably.

Beluga whales feed on a school of Arctic cod (the dark streak), a species of potential commercial value but about which we know very little (arkive.org)

The tension over who if anyone owns any of the international waters in the huge center of the Arctic continue to grow, with Russia planning to reopen long closed Soviet bases, Canada considering using drones to monitor the region, and the US getting increasingly nervous about not having a vote in the UN negotiations concerning international boundaries.

The international water of the Arctic Ocean (red lin e)(oceansnorth.org)

Meanwhile China and South Korea are building icebreakers and intend to be players in the search for Arctic fish and other resources.

And then there are the oil companies.

The huge BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 is largely forgotten. Canada, the US and Norway are all inviting oil companies to bid for licenses to explore for oil and natural gas along their Arctic coastlines from Alaska and the Beaufort Sea to the Barents Sea. After a relentless, seven year campaign, Shell begins to drill on the Alaskan North Slope this summer, with Greenpeace watching closely. All the companies are eager to drill in international waters when that becomes possible.

Canada opens the Beaufort Sea for bids for drilling licenses

They are preparing to work in the cold, in darkness, in sea ice a long way from any supportive infrastructure. Still they claim development can be done sustainably.

In fact, nine of the major oil companies, including Statoil, Total, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Shell, have launched a research program where they will assess how spills flow in the Arctic, how to track them remotely, and how to recovery spilled oil. They will do this with ‘controlled’ spills.

Missing from this initiative are the Russian companies, Gazprom and Rosneft. No one seems confident that they will comply with regulations that the others accept. The Gazprom rig that capsized off Sakhalin last December, killing 50, is not reassuring.

Actually, no company is ready for offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean, for no proven method for clean-up there exists.

Resistance to drilling has failed. The US sees the Arctic resources as part of its route to energy independence. Norway needs to replace its lucrative but depleted offshore southern oil fields with new northern ones. Canada wants to sell its resources to anyone who will buy them. Russia is Russia.

We hoped the rules of the game might be different in the Arctic as it opens up, based on all that we have learned over the past few decades. In fact they look exactly like they always have: power wins; the idea of endless economic growth remains unchallenged; resources exist to be exploited; environmental concerns are recognized and then largely ignored.

As elsewhere in our modern world, our response has become not to stop it, but at best to try to make it less bad.

At the least, a vigilant and activist press is increasingly critical – reminding us of past initiatives and failures, of the importance of evidence and precaution, and of the fragility and vulnerability of our natural world.

Walruses meet to debate the future of the Arctic Ocean (washingtonpost.com)

Unlimited Gas.

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Burning methane hydrate ice (blogs.plos.org)

People are getting quite excited.

With methane hydrates now a possible source of natural gas, we may never run out of carbon-based fuels. Well, never is a reach, but a thousand or so years might be the reality.

Methane seeps up from the Earth’s interior, and in the cold and pressurized sandstones of the world’s continental shelves, it is captured by water molecules and frozen in ice lattices, forming methane hydrates.

Methane hydrate ice: under pressure, water crystal lattice forms around methane molecules (giss.nana.gov)

A single methane molecule (CH4) is trapped insdide the lattice of water molecules (records.viu.ca)

Now it has become extractable. This past winter, on the north slope off of Alaska, the US Dept of Energy along with Japan’s Oil Gas and Metals National Corporation, and Conoco-Phillips Oil, successfully drilled for the trapped methane for 30 days.

They used two methods, both releasing the methane by decreasing the pressure on the hydrates.

One method was to pump CO2 down the drill hole to the hydrates in the sandstone, where CO2 then replaced the methane molecules. This sounds very enticing – a way to dispose of the CO2 from oil refinement by pumping it into deep-water, sub-surface sandstone. Win-win.

The second was to pump water under pressure down into the sandstone, releasing pressure on the trapped gas. Feasible, apparently, but environmentally embarrassing, It’s uncertain how well it works – at least no-one is saying much about it.

Now we’re heading into a decade or so of experimental drilling, somewhat like the days of initial exploration for natural gas in the 1970s.

But this is different. Gas hydrates occur everywhere on the slopes of the continental shelves. The US Gulf Coast alone has enough to make the US energy independent for the foreseeable future – it doesn’t have to come from just the offshore slopes under the frozen Arctic.

Methane hydrate deposits occur abundantly in the sediment in the deeper of the world's continental slopes (globalcarbonproject.org)

The US plans much more extensive experimental drilling. So too do Japan and China, who haven’t dared dream of energy independence until now.

What’s the reality here? We don’t know, but the source looks almost unlimited, and the experimental drilling and CO2 injection worked – methane was captured.

What if water injection is a more effective method? Perhaps public scrutiny and the increasing value of clean water will push the technology to CO2 injection in any case. Perhaps it is safer and kinder to the Earth than the fracking for natural gas that is sweeping the world.

What lies ahead should worry us all.

But then what?
Exxon-Mobile and all the other oil companies that appear to govern the world are probably ecstatic.
This is not the way to keep the planet from becoming than a hothouse.
This is the way to ensure it happens.

This is not good news.

Orca Aliens

Monday, March 26th, 2012

The orbiting, planet-hunting Kepler Telescope continues to find ever more planetary systems in our galaxy, and California’s Allen Telescope Array is again listening for signals from distant alien species. There really are likely to be small rocky, water-bearing and life-supporting planets somewhat like our Earth, orbiting their stars, scattered throughout our galaxy, and therefore throughout the universe.

The Kepler Telescope launched in 2009 and dedicated to identifying habitable planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy, is finding more planetary systems than anyone ever expected(nasa.gov)

Light travels about 16 trillion miles per year. The closest star to us, Alpha Centauri is four light-years away, and we are 50,000 light-years from the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, which in turn is 150,000 light-years in diameter.

We’ll never travel to other stars and their planetary systems, so exchanging signals with other intelligent species much like ourselves over these immense distances is all we can hope for. Of course the conversations would be slow, considering that nothing exceeds the speed of light, not even Italian neutrinos.

Such a faint hope, then. Perhaps some of these planets, many light-years away, support life forms more complicated than bacteria. Among these, perhaps some species have evolved complex cooperative behavior, and have what we think of as intelligence.

What would they look like? How would they communicate with each other? Would they be aware of themselves? Of their communities? Of their planet? Of the rest of the universe? Would they try to communicate with intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy? Why would they? The questions are endless, and we may never get answers.

Sharing planet Earth with us are some intelligent, cooperative hunting mammals that have brains and anatomies sort of like ours. Wolves, chimps and dolphins come to mind. If we are going to succeed in communicating with any other species, we should start here.

Killer Whales – Orca – are the largest of the dolphins, and are as good an example as any to think about. We have tagged them, tracked them, mapped their DNA, counted them, figured out some of their life histories and their relationships with each other, observed and recorded their hunting behavior and their migrations, and recorded and analysed the sounds they make.

Orcas observe and circle a seal on an ice floe (nus.edu.sg)

The whales cooperate to rock the floe with a bow wave to dislodge the seal (telegraph.co.uk)

In the Antarctic, some Orcas hunt minke whales, some hunt seals, some hunt fish, and others hunt penguins.

But we have utterly failed to communicate anything important with them. What sort of language do they have? Do they have a language? We think they have sub-cultures that vary among families or pods. How do these emerge, how are they taught and communicated?

Orcas cruise the oceans of the planet, they are clearly intelligent by any definition, but they don’t build things. They are not going to emit signals out into space in an attempt to contact other imagined species on other extremely distant worlds.

Though exciting to contemplate, the odds of our receiving emitted signals from alien species on planets orbiting other stars must also be perilously close to zero.

A tagged female Orca swims from the West Antarctic Peninsula in a non-stop return trip to the warm waters off the coast of Brazil at the peak of the southern summer, traveling 9400 km in 42 days at about 12 km/hr. Such trips appear to be common, but their function is unknown, a matter of speculation.

There is no reason to think that intelligent species on other planets, if they exist, will be anything like us, let alone have any of our addiction to building things. And though the Universe may be filled with life – perhaps mostly bacterial in complexity, perhaps not – we are too far away from any other planetary systems to ever visit them.

To think we are somehow going to communicate with other species on other planets is also beyond unlikely. We can’t even do it with species we co-exist with here.

Even if the Universe is teeming with life, the distance are so great that we really are on our own. This makes it ever more critical that we conserve, protect, and recover what we can of our own ecosystems. We should celebrate the extraordinary complexity and beauty of the other intelligent species we share this planet with – elephants, chimps, wolves, ravens, sperm whales, dolphins, and all the rest.

Meaningful communication with another species would be so amazing.

These are harsh years on this planet, but why not dream?

The Allen Telescope Array searches for signals indicating intelligent elsewhere in our galaxy, an expensive and futile effort (seti.org)

The Ever Opening Arctic

Friday, January 13th, 2012

Alaska is disappearing under the snow this winter. The only US ice breaker, the cutter Healy, is currently plowing through 2-4 feet of ice, leading a Russian tanker full of fuel to Nome, on Alaska’s west coast, to ensure the town has sufficient to get it through the winter.

The one remaining decent US ice breaker is currently leading an oil tanker to Nome, Alaska. (cnn.com)

Sounds like old times? It isn’t.

Last summer, the Arctic ice cover melted enough once again to allow some ships through the Northwest Passage along Canada’s Arctic coast, and a lot more traffic along the Northeast Passage, or Northern Sea Route, along Russia’s Arctic coast. Multiyear ice is less every year, making it increasingly easy for ice breakers to manage.

Extent of Arctic sea ice in September 2011. Both the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route along Russia's coast are still wide open. (noaa.com)

Speaking of ice breakers, Russia thoroughly dominates, with four that are nuclear powered, six that are smaller and conventional, and six more on order, including three nuclear powered. It’s largest is 160 meters long, over 1 1/2 football fields. The US has two ice breakers that need replacing, and one that is still good. China is building, and expects to be a powerful presence on the new trade routes. Germany has built a large research ice breaker. South Korea has also commissioned one, and is strengthening cargo ships to be able to break through thin ice. Canada seems to be slipping into oblivion in this particular race, and probably will not be a contender.

The Arctic is now expected to be ice free in summer in about 30 years. Free for the sea routes, free for oil exploration and exploitation, and free for fishing. In the middle of it all lies the large ‘donut-hole’ of unexploited international waters.

International waters in the Arctic will be ice free in summer and open for business in about 30 years. The red line indicates the current limits of the international waters (oceannorth.com)

Where are we with fishing and seabed rights to these international waters? Well, pretty well nowhere. Russia still claims a lot of that area for itself, and so does Canada, but a more likely outcome is that the central Arctic Ocean, the donut hole, will remain international waters, and subject to few regulations.

One of the responses comes from the Pew Environmental Group, whose ambitious mission is ‘to work globally to establish pragmatic, science-based policies that protect our oceans, preserve our wildlands and promote the clean energy economy’. They have organized a petition to attempt to protect the international waters of the Arctic from fishing until we know what there is is to be fished, and how it can be fished sustainably. This is really not impossible. Have a look. Sign if you wish.

Meanwhile, In coastal waters from the Beaufort Sea to Siberia, oil companies – Chevron, Imperial Oil, and yes, BP – are all developing their exploration efforts as regulations diminish to ensure they do so safely. Controlling them successfully seems to be far less likely.

The stakes in the Arctic continue to grow. Will we rationally and sustainably share the resources of the international high seas and the seabed below them, or will we once again all try to grab whatever is possible before it disappears?

We’ll need to work this out soon.

New Northeast Passage shipping lanes are opening up in the summer as the Arctic ice continues to melt (nytimes.com)