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Ice and Oil; Oil and Ice

October 17, 2011

Last month, U.S. scientists confirmed that the Arctic has lost the second highest annual amount of ice since monitoring began. Of the remaining ice, much more is thinner, single-year ice resulting from melting and refreezing during the year. Older, thicker multi-year ice has declined by 60% over the past 30 years.

If Arctic summer sea ice continues to melt at its current rate, we will be presented with significant opportunities to harvest more oil and gas from new sources in the Arctic. Indeed, 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil might be under Arctic ice, as might 30% of undiscovered natural gas. So, Arctic nations are lining up to get at those reserves. So the formula looks simple: less ice = more oil and more gas. And, as those resources are harvested and consumed, we expect the resulting rise in CO2, methane and other climate-forcing emissions will mean even less sea ice.

So what does it matter if Arctic ice disappears? We will have more years of electricity generation and gasoline from the fossil fuels found in the Arctic, and there will likely be faster, trans-Arctic shipping routes in the summer months. For many, the site of floundering polar bears or walruses may be sad, but doesn’t amount to a reason for limiting activities to keep the ice around.

Perhaps, however, the idea of the low-lying Pacific islands disappearing or of most of Southern Florida ceasing to exist might matter. While Arctic ice is already floating and won’t raise sea levels, the Arctic warming that is causing that ice to disappear is also melting the Greenland Ice Sheet and that will have calamitous results for many coastal cultures, including our own.

Perhaps, too, the fact that newly open waters, free of sea ice, will capture more solar radiation might matter to many inland dwellers. According to James Overland, research oceanographer with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “We’re actually increasing the amount of heat coming into the planet.” While more research is needed, Overland says that data suggests this heating-up could shift global weather patterns and bring more frequent droughts to the U.S. and create super-charged storms.

However, before the research results are in, we’ll already have more first-hand knowledge about what a warming Arctic means. We’ll find out if permafrost will continue to thaw, releasing more methane, further exacerbating warming. We may even experience climate responses that we haven’t yet considered.

What we do know, is that human decisions haven’t been able to keep the summer sea ice intact, and that we need to reduce climate pollutants, quickly. Unfortunately, we will have to work with the world we have, not the one we wish we were leaving for our children and grandchildren.

Playing the Arctic hand we’ve dealt ourselves means having federal governments, industries and local communities take a hard line on the practices that will be allowed in the northernmost five percent of our planet. Only the safest, zero-emitting, zero-discharging practices for oil and gas drilling and production can be allowed and if such practices do not exist, there must be a moratorium until technology catches up with the world hunger for hydrocarbons. Ships traveling across the Arctic must have lowest emissions possible of all pollutants, particularly including black carbon from diesel engine smoke, since the resultant soot settling on the remaining ice will only serve to hasten its melting.

Now, CATF and our partners, many of whom have been engaged in Arctic work for decades, are launching a zero emissions Arctic campaign, to significantly reduce CO2 and other emissions from Arctic oil and gas production activities and intra-Arctic shipping. We will be working with the Arctic Council and its member countries to push for both domestic regulation and circumpolar agreements to advance the adoption of best zero-emissions practices. Because only a clear focus and robust, enforceable limits on climate-forcing agents will have a chance of protecting the Arctic of the 21st century.

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