The Melting Arctic
The most comprehensive scientific study of the melting Arctic to date, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, was delivered in 2004, and detailed a number of projected consequences of rising Arctic temperatures. The study was reinforced this September when NASA satellites recorded the 4th consecutive year of dramatically decreasing summer sea-ice levels.
See Article: Canada’s North is Melting
Both studies reached the conclusion that Arctic ice levels are decreasing at a rapid rate, and will continue to do so. Most of the region will still be covered in ice during winter, but a larger area than usual is thawing each summer. Canada will experience this directly on two fronts – permafrost levels on previously frozen tundra will move north, and sea-ice will melt to create new areas of open ocean. These changes will have a huge economic impact and will also raise serious environmental concerns.
North by Northwest
The immediate impact of a decline in sea-ice is now being seen – the Northwest Passage, fabled sea-route of old, is rapidly becoming navigable in the summer. Says the ACIA, “By the end of this century, the length of the navigation season…along the Northern Sea route is projected to increase to about 120 days from the current 20-30 days.”
Opening up the passage to shipping traffic would cut the distance of shipping between North America and Asia by nearly 10 000 km, making it an attractive option for supertankers that are too large to fit through the Panama Canal. In the future, it may even be possible to have a clear lane to ship goods between Northern Russia and Canada, directly across the Pole.
The potential for shipping routes has raised Canada’s concerns over its sovereignty in the North. The United States considers the Northwest Passage an international strait, while Canada maintains it as internal waters. Looming disputes in the region, including a spat with Denmark over tiny Hans Island, has led Canada to hold Arctic military exercises, and send two warships to the northern port of Churchill.
Canada signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 2003, which determines a country’s territory by how far its continental shelf extends under the sea. Other countries are already mapping their sea-bed, and Canada has until 2013 to finish its project, which is likely to disagree with findings from Russia, Denmark, and the United States. Currently, countries can currently claim up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline, and sea-bed surveys could extend this another 150 n.m.
Scientists note that initially, the Northwest Passage may be even more dangerous, as large chunks of floating ice impede ships. In time however, an ice-free summer shipping lane could open up between Asia and Canada, with Churchill the potential beneficiary of hundreds of millions in shipping traffic. In a seemingly prophetic move, a US railway developer purchased the abandon port in 1997 for mere pennies, and is now dredging the harbour to prepare for larger ships.
The open seas may also spur the growth of Northern fisheries. The ACIA report notes that some marine fish populations, such as cod and herring, are likely to become more productive with small temperature changes. In contrast, Northern freshwater species, which supply food for the local populations, will likely decrease or become extinct. The expansion of fishing in Canadian and disputed international waters will necessitate a comprehensive Arctic fishing policy to ensure the relative stability of fish populations.
Under the sea, countries are already pushing the limits of working in the Arctic environment when it comes to oil and mineral extractions. Scientists have detected traces of oil within a few hundred kilometers of the North Pole, and any reduction in sea-ice will increase extraction.
China and other countries are researching the potential for oil operations in the North, and Russia and Norway are already experiencing offers from oil companies to explore the Barents Sea. Canada could experience a similar rush on previously ice-locked resources in the next several decades, and must decide how to manage energy needs and the potential damage to the unique northern ecosystem.
Increased oil extraction and transportation will likely lead to further accidents, such as oil spills, which have a potentially longer-lasting and more drastic effect in cold climates.
On land, the melting of the frozen ground is already starting to cause problems for transportation and oil pipelines. The land that is used for roads and pipeline support becomes unstable when it melts, and investment will be needed to rebuild and repair these areas before any industrial expansion can proceed.
The ACIA has noted that the number of days on which travel is permitted on the tundra has been reduced by 50% in the past 30 years. Regulations restrict travel to protect the tundra ecosystem, and these may be relaxed as thawing further reduces travel days. This would re-increase the usage of oil and gas equipment and possibly cause further environmental damage.
The thawing ground will also make more small-scale mining possible, bringing further infrastructure and population into new areas.
No one will feel the impacts of the loss of ice than Canada’s Inuit, who depend on the ice for fishing, hunting, and housing. Already they are noticing changes in the migration patterns of animal species, and vegetation that is slowly creeping over the tundra. The line of permafrost is moving rapidly north, bringing forests and landscape change with it.
This northward movement of vegetation will actually provide further carbon uptake from the atmosphere, note scientists. Conversely, thawing tundra will release trapped methane, so the net effect on climate change is unknown, although larger forests may provide a net-positive effect.
The forest industry may benefit from this increase in the available wooded area, and the relatively small northern agriculture industry could improve productivity. As with any ecosystem change, there are difficulties that will emerge as certain species thrive and others decline. The eventual balance in the Arctic will shift, and no one is quite sure whether species such as caribou and polar bears will be able to thrive in different conditions.
Profits and Problems
There is not doubt that the warming Arctic will undergo massive changes, and bring economic benefits as well as environmental concerns. On the business side, resource extraction and fisheries are looked upon as favourable growth areas. But from an environmental perspective, these new opportunities also pose a threat to the northern ecosystem, and to the world. It seems that much of the new activity in the region will focus not only on gaining from the warmer climate, but also on preventing corresponding environmental degradation.
Mining and fossil-fuel extraction will no doubt be a key sector in this growth. The United States and others are looking to the north to ease the world’s oil supply. Drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge may be approved if the US Congress passes its proposed budget, and a pipeline will likely be built either along the Alaska Highway or through Canada’s Mackenzie River Delta. A provision to allow states to begin new offshore drilling projects will also be included in the budget, and oil company eyes are clearly on the Arctic Ocean.
Canada will have much at stake should Arctic drilling begin, and specially adapted technology will be needed to minimize environmental impact while enduring frigid waters and extreme weather. Transportation routes will need to be expanded in a manner that ensures long-term viability and reduces harm to migrating species and fragile vegetation. Building infrastructure in remote areas will require attention to unique environmental circumstances.
It is certain that the Arctic is warming, and no one doubts that this will have wide-ranging economic and environmental effects. Canada, as a polar country with a large Arctic land-mass, will be at the centre of these changes. Management of the region will require both effort and restraint, as potential windfalls are tempered by concern for the environment.
Canada will need to carefully guard our Arctic territory as we experience what is perhaps the first major, geo-political impact of global climate change.