Posts Tagged ‘Arctic’

The Arctic Council: A Path Forward

ArcticCouncilThe Arctic Council held a landmark meeting this week, complete with notable attendees, major decisions, and significant agreements. The US sent Secretary of State John Kerry, demonstrating increased focus on Arctic issues even as they remain a non-signatory to the UNCLOS treaty. The group expanded its membership by granting 6 Permanent Observer positions to China, Japan, South Korea, India, Singapore, and Italy. The council of 8 Arctic nations (The A8) also signed the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, which commits countries to prepare for environmental protection and cooperation in emergency situations. This meeting, held in Kiruna Sweden, demonstrated the expanding interest from both Arctic and non-Arctic countries, but more importantly demonstrated success in international cooperation regarding geopolitical and environmental concerns.

The US, traditionally laggard in commitments and preparations for Arctic change, stepped up its presence and participation in two major ways. First, Secretary of State John Kerry attended the meeting, suggesting earnest engagement from the US. Second, the US released its National Arctic Strategy (pdf here) asserting national security, stewardship, and international cooperation as primary objectives. While a refreshing step forward for the US Arctic policy, its focus on security interests and associated economic interests has been heavily critiqued for lacking firm commitments or stated environmental goals.

During the meeting, the Council evaluated applications for Permanent Observer Status, and granted access to 6 new states, most notably China. China’s adamant pursuit of an Arctic foothold has been rebuffed by Norway and Iceland in recent years over economic and social issues, but their persistence has paid off. The European Union was not so successful as they have been granted a conditional appointment pending resolution of a seal products ban, opposed vigorously by Canada. These issues highlight the increasing weight of Arctic interests as they are now being used for geopolitical leverage.

My final note is one of actual impact, opposed to the political posturing mentioned above. The Council concluded with the signing of Spill Response Accord whereby the A8 nations commit resources and promise cooperation in responding to Arctic emergencies. The success of the Arctic Council in establishing a forum for transnational discussions stands as an exemplar of international negotiations and provides not only progress in dealing with global scale changes, but also hope that nation states are in fact capable of acting on global challenges.

Categories: Climate, Policy Tags: , , ,

Struggles in Arctic: Risk is the Price

28 January 2013 1 comment

Development plans for the Shtokman natural gas field were put on hold this last summer as agreements expired between Gazprom, Statoil, and Total. The Shtokman Development AG, the corporation formed by these 3 players to explore the field, had a 5 year charter that expired in July with no further plans for cooperation.  During the most open Arctic sea ice season in history, the challenges posed by Arctic ocean drilling remain daunting and are still prohibitory.  The Development AG was created to share the risk of Arctic operations among the 3 participants. Not only are the costs of operations, risks, and precautions extraordinary in the Arctic, but the unimaginable cost of cleanup of an accident in this harsh, remote, offshore environment remains staggering and damning.

The Shtokman natural gas field has been a viewed as one of the most feasible gems in Arctic Hydrocarbon exploration. Several factors make this play so enticing, including it’s promising reserves, but more importantly its location.  Located in the Barents Sea approximately 600km north of Murmansk, RU, the Shtokman Field is relatively close to the largest city in the Arctic. This means it has (relatively) easy access to the drilling infrastructure and equipment. It also means that in the case of an emergency, rescue and spill response teams  will be better able to assist in support and clean up. Location is also a crucial factor in that it is located near some of the warmest (again relatively) waters within the Arctic Ocean.  This corner of the Arctic is home to the 10 biggest cities in the Arctic because of the warm waters brought to this area at the tail end of Gulf Stream which keeps waters warm and ice-free.

While exploration of this play will certainly continue, this breakdown in cooperation shows hesitation in response to the great uncertainty present in this last frontier.  Risk is inherent in Arctic operations. A unquantifiable risk poses a difficult question of when to proceed in increasingly difficult plays, especially in the recent volatile global natural gas market.

Categories: Energy Tags: ,

Arctic Sea Ice: A New Minimum, Again

3 September 2012 Leave a comment

The Arctic sea ice extent has reached a new record low with 2 weeks left to go in the melt season. This marks a more than 40% decline in sea ice minimums over the last 40 years.  Moreover, this new record low comes in a series of months and years of perpetual record breaking melt seasons, with the 6 lowest annual sea ice minimums being recorded in the last 6 years.  Until this year, 2007 held the record reaching then-unfathomable minimum of 4.2 million sq.

miles. This was thought to be due to a confluence of several climatological factors coinciding to produce a shockingly high rate of melt. The 2007 event, like most climate change events, was interpolated as an extreme,  once-in-a-lifetime type event. It’s only when the record is re-broken in short succession by an even stronger melt event, that we start to realize this is not a coincident, but a long-term, severe pattern.

Conservative estimates garnered from the IPCC 4AR suggest that we may see an ice-free Arctic sometime in the latter half of this century. The more progressive estimates suggest this may occur by mid-century. Until this year, the most extreme estimates put an ice-free Arctic as decades off.  Now some experts are saying this may happen before the end of the current decade.

What does an ice-free Arctic mean?

Sea Ice is classified by its age: first-year, second-year, and multi-year. First-year ice is what forms every winter. It can be up to ~1 meter thick. Though it’s tough going, most Arctic Class icebreakers are able to break through ice of this thickness. If first-year ice persists through the summer, it becomes second-year ice and can grow up to 2m thick. Anything beyond 2m thickness is generally referred to as multi-year ice and can be up to 20m thick at ice-ridges. Second-year and multi-year ice creates nearly impenetrable ice packs. While first-year ice will always reform during the winter, an ice-free summer would eliminate all multi-year ice. The subsequent summer would only have thinner, first-year ice which is less likely to persist through the summer, making it very difficult for multi-year ice to reform.  If the Arctic was to experience an ice-free summer, it would signify that a dramatic threshold had indeed been crossed. This, in conjunction with the associated changes in albedo, creates a pretty strong positive feedback loop, which may entrench the ice-free pattern for the foreseeable future.

A completely ice-free Arctic is unlikely for several decades, as the thickest and most stubborn ice is landfast against the brutally harsh north shore of Canada. But landfast ice is of  little concern for mariners as its location is known and predictable. It’s the large, thick, drifting ice packs that provide that largest impediments to Arctic access and nautical navigation, and these would be eliminated by an ice-free summer.

Categories: Climate Tags: , ,