All eyes turn to the prize as the Arctic opens for business

On thin ice? Alan D. Wilson/naturespicsonline.com

Foundation essay: This article on the future of the Arctic by Tavis Potts, Senior Lecturer in Oceans Governance at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, is part of a series marking the launch of The Conversation in the UK. Our foundation essays are longer than our usual comment and analysis articles and take a wider look at key issues affecting society.

At the centre of the public hall in Kiruna, northern Sweden – the host of the 2013 Arctic Council - sits a large block of ice emblazoned with the council’s logo. As delegates from the eight Arctic Council states, six permanent indigenous representatives, 12 observer states, and a host of non-governmental observers shuffle into the room, the temperature rises; and the sculpture melts. The symbolic reference to a rapidly melting Arctic region driven by human-induced climatic change sets the tone, but I’m not sure if anyone has noticed it yet.

This month was an important date in the Arctic calendar. The ministerial-level meeting included the US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It was a high profile event that saw the council chairmanship shift from Europe to North America, from Sweden to Canada. At the same time the Arctic blossomed from a predominantly regional issue to one of global significance. The sense of gravitas at the event was palpable, as was the intense media interest on what the future will hold for this fragile region. How wide this interest has become is underscored by the entry of China, India, Japan and South Korea into the Arctic Council as permanent observers. All are major importers of minerals, and have key interests in developing shipping and maritime trade through the region.

The Arctic is one of the most rapidly warming places on the planet. CO2 emissions and associated warming is transforming the region into a new and unpredictable territory. There are huge annual reductions in the extent and thickness of summer sea ice, snow cover, and extensive melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Arctic summer sea ice distribution has been on a downward spiral since satellite records begin in 1978. In recent years it has suffered severe and unexpected declines. The record low ice minimum of 3.29 million sq km (1.27 million sq mi) set in September represents a little over half the average between 1979 and 2000. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently commented that it is not a case of “if” but “when” the Arctic will be ice free in summer, a point likely to arrive in the next few decades.

Because the Arctic is warming about three times faster than the global average, Arctic ecosystems are likely to encounter regime shifts – new phases of significant change. The loss of sea ice, for example, drives changes in the amount of light which will increase the growth of marine plants vital to the ecosystem. A short-term increase in productivity may lead to significant changes in Arctic ecology and changes in the distribution of Arctic species. A loss of sea ice will also mean a potentially catastrophic habitat loss for iconic species such as the polar bear or harp seal.

The intrusion of warm water into environments like the Barents Sea has brought temperate marine species into Arctic waters, and an increase in cod. While not all the changes can be considered negative – Barents Sea fisheries are booming – the effects on the ecosystem are unknown. There will be clear ecological winners and losers. Add to this the impact of ocean acidification – the cold, polar waters absorb more atmospheric CO2 – and it is clear we are gambling with the health of the Arctic and entering a period of entirely unknown effects on a scale never seen before.

The parallel dialogue among Arctic nations that highlights environmental issues yet speaks of a region “open for business” has created national and international tensions. The recent US National Strategy for the Arctic Region makes it quite clear that developing the region for its energy resources is the long term priority. The US, it states, must:

Respond effectively to challenges and emerging opportunities arising from significant increases in Arctic activity due to the diminishment of sea ice and the emergence of a new Arctic environment.

As the new chair of the Arctic Council, Canada plans to establish a Circumpolar Business Forum to bring together business interests across the Arctic - reflecting the new, economic priorities. It remains to be seen how these parallel dialogues can be reconciled. Will development undermine the region’s fragile environment? Is low carbon development still possible?

The global interest in extracting oil, gas and minerals is predominantly driven by the notion that the Arctic contains 13% of the world’s remaining oil reserves and 30% of its gas reserves. Despite any conservation rhetoric, the reality is a rush to access these highly contested resources, driven by the uncertainty, technical difficulty and expense in extracting them.

Recent events have shown just how difficult this can be. In March, the Greenlandic elections were fought over concerns that mining and oil companies’ growing influence in the region came at the expense of traditional hunting and fishing industries. The sitting government was removed and replaced by an administration more cautious towards resource development.

In Alaska, Shell suffered high profile mishaps when its Kulluk rig ran aground and Conoco Phillips announced it was suspending exploration after US authorities indicated regulations for offshore drilling would be tightened.

In Russia, the perpetually troubled Shtokman gas development has been shelved - to be left for “future generations”, according to state-dominated firm Gazprom. And only a few weeks ago in Norway, the recently discovered Johan Castberg oil field (previously known as Skrugard) was delayed indefinitely due to tax hikes.

Finding new discoveries has been as difficult as exploiting known deposits. Edinburgh’s Cairn Energy spent $1.2 billion on exploration off Greenland without any commercially viable discoveries to show for it. Increasingly the picture painted of the Arctic as an Eldorado of oil and gas seems sketchy. The reality is risky, technically difficult and expensive operations complicated by shifting, uncertain and contested politics.

And as the summer sea ice diminishes, shipping in the arctic increases. Moscow is particularly keen to develop the Northern Sea Route for maritime traffic. The high-tonnage tanker SCF Baltica was the first to transit the route in 2010, its 22-day voyage estimated to be twice as fast as travelling via the Suez Canal. From four vessels in 2010, traffic has grown to 46 in 2012, carrying four million tonnes of freight. This is set to grow to 89 vessels this year.

China in particular is eyeing the strategic use of the Northern Sea Route. Norway’s Department of Transport forecasts as much as 15% of China’s international trade, mostly container ships, will use the route to reach Europe by 2020. The opportunities offered by Arctic sea lanes have become a reality - the potential for saving time and money is enough attraction despite significant challenges in terms of navigational safety.

Which brings us back to the Arctic Council, embracing its new role in policy making rather than mere stewardship. The council still pushes its vision of the Arctic as vulnerable and threatened, at the same time as its development agenda. It appears concerned over the threat of climate change and is, at least on paper, set on doing something about it. It supports traditional scientific programs such the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program to monitor and raise awareness of the growing impact of climate change and ocean acidification. And it has began to develop legal teeth, with ministers at Kiruna signing a legally-binding agreement on oil pollution preparedness and response.

A permanent secretariat now exists in Norway for the Arctic Council and there is a clear mandate for the council to be more aggressive on the international stage, working towards an international legal agreement on climate change no later than 2015.

The Arctic has become a global issue. It stands at the frontline of climate change and faces considerable pressure from emerging oil and gas development and shipping. The parallel dialogues highlight the tensions between conservation and development - but as always the truth is in the middle. The Arctic will develop, but the form, timetable and beneficiaries of that development is unclear. What is missing is an alternative vision of the role a low carbon economy could take in the region, and how development might benefit the Arctic’s inhabitants for the long-term.

As members have realised in Kiruna, addressing the pressures that are driving change in the Arctic requires action beyond its borders. Climate change is a global issue needing a global resolution. Much of the impact on the climate system comes from outside the borders of the Arctic. The international community, and we as individual citizens, have an important role to play in influencing the path the Arctic takes.

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