Washington — Warmer temperatures causing global climate change are recorded month after month, but the greatest evidence of environmental change appears in the Arctic. Increased summer melt of the Arctic Ocean is opening new navigable sea lanes, creating both new opportunities and new risks for the nations with interests in the northernmost ocean.
“We sort of think of this as a new ocean opening up for the first time in 500 years,” said U.S. Naval Rear Admiral David Titley, speaking on a discussion panel at a science conference sponsored by the American Geophysical Union in Washington May 1.
“A massive transformation,” University of Calgary professor Rob Huebert described the changes in store for the Arctic’s increasing summer ice melt. “We’re seeing a transformation on the physical side the likes of which as a human species we haven’t seen before.” Huebert is a coauthor of the newly released report Climate Change & International Security: The Arctic as a Bellwether, prepared for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Titley agreed with Huebert’s prediction of transformation as a result of new open waters at the top of the world. “Water where there used to be ice, that changes shipping. It changes how Russia probably thinks about their northern flank. It changes resource extraction, so it really is quite a different world,” Titley said.
A variety of industries will see opportunities to make greater use of Arctic resources, panel members agreed, including oil and gas extraction, tourism, shipping and fishing. This development will have inevitable impacts on the 4 million people who inhabit the Arctic region and the eight nations considered Arctic States: Canada; the United States; Greenland, a self-governing country in the Kingdom of Denmark; Norway; Finland; Iceland; Russia and Sweden. These eight are members of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum created by mutual agreement in 1996 as a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the members.
Some estimates calculate that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil is in the Arctic, and 30 percent of the undiscovered natural gas. As Arctic opportunities grow for profit and exploration, so grows the potential for disagreement and conflict as nations and the interests they represent compete for claims. Nations bordering on the Caribbean Sea share the waters agreeably, Titley pointed out, demonstrating cooperation around a shared resource is possible.
With opportunity for greater profit comes risk. The Arctic is a hostile operating climate with limited mapping and an array of dangers including harsh temperatures and inexact techniques for forecasting ice strength and movement of sea ice. More economic activity will invariably mean that more people will be at risk to these uncertainties.
With cruise ship operators already making more trips into the Arctic sea lanes that have opened in the last several seasons, Titley warned that a “Titanic-like disaster” is going to happen at some point in polar waters.
Cruise ship operators attract customers wanting to see icebergs and Arctic animals up close, sailing into uncharted waters to do so, despite the potential for hazards just below the surface. Several cruise ships have already run into trouble in Arctic and Antarctic waters, with survivors rescued only because other ships with the capacity to rescue happened to be nearby. Admiral Titley said as cruise liners increase their sailings into these waters, another stricken vessel won’t be so lucky.
“Hope is not a great strategy when you are dealing with search and rescue,” said Titley, and “at some point, someday, [a disaster] is going to happen.”
The U.S. Coast Guard has limited capacity for search and rescue in the Arctic and Antarctica. Huebert also said the International Maritime Organization has not set higher standards for enclosing lifeboats on ships cruising cold waters, even though the proposal to do so was first raised after the deaths of more than 1,500 people when the Titanic collided with an iceberg 100 years ago.