The Future of the Arctic

Winter landscape


By Victoria Burton, Stephane Mangeon, Christoph Mazur, Simon Moulds, Jonathan Ritson, Philip Sandwell, Rebecca Short, and Patric Simoes Pereira

Grantham and SSCP-DTP students investigate how climate change and oil exploration are affecting the Arctic, and the potential harm or benefits that these will bring. 

The Arctic is changing, both environmentally and economically. What was once one of the most inaccessible areas on Earth is now making headlines as the effects of climate change become more apparent.

This year saw the United States assume the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum established in 1996 to facilitate political dialogue and cooperation in the region. The goals set by the current Chair are to improve the living conditions of the indigenous communities, maintain safety and security in the Arctic Ocean, and address the impacts of climate change. Already there is a focus on the increase in Arctic activity which is likely to occur in the decades to come: the region holds vast reservoirs of fossil fuels (see this article for a map of natural gas reserves) and retreating sea-ice will open new routes for international shipping. The impacts of climate change are, and will be, dramatic in the region, and each new economic opportunity also brings a risk to the fragile Arctic environment.

To discuss the issues facing the region the British Library hosted a panel discussion entitled “The Future of the Arctic”, which brought together representatives from the US and Canadian embassies, the British Foreign Office, and other eminent policymakers, scientists and activists. The current situation of the Arctic was introduced and recent events and their impact on the Arctic were discussed; amongst these were the fall of oil prices and geopolitical conflicts amongst the permanent members of the Council.

Building a partnership for the Arctic

The eight countries with territory within the Arctic Circle – the USA, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia – form the members of the Arctic Council. The Council was created to promote cooperation and cohesion between the member states and features working groups promoting conservation, sustainable development, environmental monitoring and emergency response to safeguard the future of the region. Whilst the Council has had many successes in these areas, the predicted environmental change in the Arctic Circle has brought forward a number of issues.

With the melting of the sea ice and the region becoming more accessible one of the major disputes is for territory, and in particular the resources that lie underneath it. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, ratified by all Arctic nations except the USA, countries have a right to extend their territorial waters beyond their usual limits if connected to that country’s continental shelf. Without detailed seabed mapping this has led to ongoing disputes relating to overlapping claims, although these areas are dwarfed by well-defined international boundaries.

Melting sea ice opens new shipping routes, and right of passage through the region will have implications on a global scale. The opening of the Northwest Passage – connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – would reduce global transit times and have significant impacts on nations far outside the Arctic Circle. Singapore, currently a major shipping hub, sits on the Arctic Council as a permanent observer state to assess the effect this would have on their position in the global market. Other permanent observers, such as India, China and South Korea, view this as an opportunity to enhance the competitiveness of their exports.

The position of indigenous peoples, figuratively and geographically, is one of the major issues for Arctic states both domestically and internationally. Nations will emphasise the right of their native populations to prosper economically, often through minerals extraction, but this is frequently at odds with sustainable development goals set down by the international community – or even their own parliaments. With ice roads becoming increasingly unusable for most of the year, indigenous people living in the most remote regions may soon be forced to relocate from their ancestral homes or risk being cut off entirely. At present many nations subsidise these communities’ challenging existence, which in itself brings a number of social issues, but so far no long-term plan has been viewed as a success.

Despite the numerous issues that face the Arctic nations, the region remains one of the most stable and peaceful in the world. Laws governing the area are respected and the framework of the Arctic Council allows for a constructive forum for development. Environmental change in the area will force discussions between the states involved, but the impact will reach far further as countries view the region as a new Mediterranean: a passageway for many, but a home for far more.

Is investment in Arctic exploration worthwhile?

An oil rig in NorwayClimate change is expected to transform the Arctic region from inaccessible ice fields into a navigable passageway, in the process unlocking access to fossil fuel resources. A few years after a failed attempt by the Royal Dutch Shell to drill in the Arctic due to harsh environmental conditions, the US Fish and Wildlife service opened the way for a renewal in Arctic exploration. In June this year, it granted a letter of authorization to Shell allowing for the potential disturbance of polar bears and walrus related to their drilling work, though prohibiting deliberate nuisance.

There are, however, conflicting views on whether Arctic oil and gas reserves can be exploited economically. In March 2015 an assessment by Ernst and Young concluded that reserves in the region are commercially exploitable and affordable. In contrast, analysis by the US Council on Foreign Relations predicts that new discoveries elsewhere, for example cheap shale gas in the contiguous United States, will make Arctic sources unprofitable in comparison.

During the panel discussion, Lord Teverson challenged the assumption that climate change will make economic exploitation easier: much of the transport of fuel relies at present on ice roads which are becoming increasingly impassable as the permafrost thaws. Despite developments in production technologies the logistical challenges of Arctic oil and gas extraction are still formidable. Last year the Russian oil and gas company Gazprom extracted the first ever offshore shipment of oil from the Arctic fields, but this was more time- and capital-intensive than first envisaged.

With oil prices currently low, Arctic resources may be too risky of an investment to be profitable, but future changes in global commodity prices could make such reserves economically viable. With companies and nations continuing to invest in exploration, it is clear they expect society’s demand for fossil fuels will remain profitable business.

A new landscape by the end of the century

The IPCC’s 5th assessment reports a bleak picture for the future climate of the Arctic. While temperatures are predicted to rise by an average of two to four degrees around the world, the global impact is not uniform and northern latitudes are expected to undergo a much stronger warming effect.

Increasing temperatures – and ocean temperatures in particular – contribute significantly to the melting of the Arctic sea ice, which has already been observed to be shrinking at rates unprecedented in recorded history. Models predict that the extent of Arctic sea ice in September might be only 6% of the current extent by the end of this century, effectively disappearing in the “business-as-usual” RCP8.5 scenario. While this might open new shipping lanes, it implies catastrophic consequences for the people and ecosystems that rely on that ice.

The impacts of Arctic climate change will be global. Two phenomena were brought up during the discussion by Gabrielle Walker, with implications for the rest of the world: the thawing of permafrost and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The temperature of permafrost has already increased in most Arctic regions since the 1980s, and this is predicted to continue. A temperature increase will lead to a significant reduction in the extent of near-surface permafrost, which will release methane and carbon dioxide. Once released these are expected to exacerbate climate disruptions through a process called a carbon feedback (Schuur et al., 2015). The melting of the Greenland ice sheet will lead to a substantial influx of water into the world’s oceans and to rising sea-level far from the Arctic (Bamber and Aspinall, 2013, Mitrovica et al., 2001).

The environment at stake

The Earth’s last remaining wildernesses polarise people’s opinions: some want to explore it, others want to protect it, and others want to exploit it. The Arctic is a place where some of the most unique and fragile habitats in the world sit above extensive fossil fuel reserves. These ecosystems may become subject to more air and water pollution, as well as noise pollution from shipping and seismic surveys.

Perhaps the greatest concern for the Arctic region is the ability to respond to oil spills, either from rigs or ships. The Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico was located such that a large response team were able to respond quickly with a concerted effort to stem the flow and deal with the aftermath, but was still an unparalleled environmental catastrophe (Barron, 2012; Lin & Mendelssohn, 2012; Mendelssohn et al., 2012). If the situation were complicated by freezing temperatures, inaccessibility due to sea ice and disputed geopolitical boundaries the response would be far more complex.

What does the future hold?

The predictions made by the IPCC are clear: without strong mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, the Arctic region will experience significant warming with an irreversible impact on the environment. Currently inaccessible resources could become economically profitable, resulting in widespread exploitation. On the other hand, stakeholders could cooperate to establish strong protection of the Arctic.

We expect the truth will lie somewhere in the middle, with political discussions and actions responding to changing environmental and socioeconomic circumstances. The Arctic Council will continue to play a prominent role in the governance of the region, with the hope that the governments, companies and peoples of the Arctic can protect its fragile environment for years to come.

We are grateful to Prof. Al Fraiser for providing valuable insights towards this blog

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