Archive for January, 2012

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)