Menu Close

Final frontiers: the Arctic

Is the Arctic singing a siren song? Humans may be causing the problems, but they can fix them, too. ADVENTURE CANADA/AAP

With the global population now well over seven billion there are few remaining parts of the world relatively untouched by human activity. We assess the current state and future prospects of five final frontiers: rainforests, Antarctica, the Arctic, the deep sea and space.

The Arctic situation is snowballing: dangerous changes in the Arctic derived from accumulated anthropogenic green house gases lead to more activities conducive to further greenhouse gas emissions. This situation has the momentum of a run-away train. I felt there was little hope that any one nation would take the first step to abandon the greed track. However, a reaction has come, unexpectedly, from the smallest, but perhaps most affected, player.

The Arctic is suffering dangerous climate change.

The last five years have seen a cascade of unprecedented changes after a steep but relatively smooth trajectory of warming and ice loss during the 1990s. Historical record lows of summer minimum ice extent in 2007 were superseded last year: the Arctic could be free of ice in summer by 2015. A 30% increase in annual freshwater runoff has turned the Arctic into an estuarine ocean.

The area of Greenland affected by surface melting in the summer expanded in four days in July 2012 to reach 97% compared to previous values of about 40%. Finally, ozone depletion reaching levels comparable to the Antarctic ozone hole was observed for the first time in 2011. Together, the results point to a quick decline.

Results of these abrupt changes could include the disruption of the global thermohaline ocean circulation, accelerated sea level rise from melting of the Greenland ice cap, and the destabilisation of vast methane hydrate deposits in the continental shelf and coastal permafrost. These current trends and tipping points could lead to a never ending series of knock-on elements.

These changes have also released a pervasive social mechanism in humans: greed. The rapid loss of ice and the milder conditions are now rendering available vast new resources for corporations to devour.

The environmental shifts have created “opportunities” for fresh mining expeditions — on land where rich metal deposits abound, and in the ocean where extensive oil, gas, and minerals exist. The most exciting “opportunity” is the prospect of opening profitable commercial navigation routes across the Arctic.

In 2009, I attended a conference in the Arctic Frontiers series. The scientific section talked about the evidence of rapid changes and their potentially devastating consequences at the planetary scale.

The meeting also had a political section attended by Ministers and Ambassadors of Arctic nations. In 2009, Arctic nations were responsible for 26% of global CO2 emissions. Those nations include three (USA, Russia and Canada) of the top ten nations by CO2 emissions, as well as some of the nations with highest per capita emissions.

All participating politicians acknowledged that global warming, largely due to human use of fossil fuels, was responsible for Arctic ice loss and associated with abrupt, potentially dangerous, changes with global consequences. However, they declined to take steps to lower their use of fossil fuels, arguing that unilateral actions would disadvantage their industry. Yet they indicated their nations were eager to jump on the “opportunities” that partially involve mobilising more fossil fuels and re-opening carbon mines in the Arctic that were closed down on evidence of severe heavy metal pollution.

One country has now made itself an exception.

Greenland, with a population of 57,000, enjoys certain autonomy within the Kingdom of Denmark. Since 2008 a local government elected by Greenlanders, most of Inüit background, have been empowered to approve applications by the resource industry for licences to operate in the Arctic. The party ruling to date, the Ataqatigiit, opened up Greenland to mining industries across the world in an attempt to gain sufficient income in order to become independent from Denmark, which presently supplies over 50% of the Greenland budget. Indeed, rapid melting of the Greenland ice cap has triggered a gold rush, with over 200 applications for mineral and oil extraction licenses filed to date, 40% of those from Australian based companies.

Yet Greenlanders, who have seen how climate change is severely affecting their tradition and cultural practices, have taken a stand. In an election on March 12 2013, Greenlanders elected Aleqa Hammond, from the social-democratic party, as their new leader.

Her program places human rights and environmental conservation, the underpinning of their traditional livelihoods as hunters and fishers, above the financial benefits of the resource rush. She has committed to remove the law that opened the door to the mining boom. The new government have opted to stop the charging juggernaut that other nations seem unable — or unwilling — to contain.

The Greenlandic inüit are few and humble, but have given a lesson to the most powerful nations. Other nations with wealthier citizens should take note and ask themselves if they too would have the courage to walk away from the promises of wealth that fuels the run-away train of climate change.

Next week: the deep sea and space.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 171,200 academics and researchers from 4,743 institutions.

Register now