Cold Rush: Arctic ice caps, hidden mineral reserves and a 21st century gold rush

Cold Rush: Arctic ice caps, hidden mineral reserves and a 21st century gold rush

Thu, 23/12/2010 - 14:11
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As the world warms and the Arctic's ice caps melt, the region's hidden oil, gas and mineral reserves are slowly being opened up for exploration, causing international rivals to begin jockeying for position. Viel Richardson examines the causes and consequences of a 21st century gold rush


On Thursday 2nd August 2007 a team of Russian explorers planted a flag. It is something explorers have been doing all across the planet for hundreds of years, but this flag was different. For a start, it was made of titanium—not your usual flag material. Secondly, it was planted on the Lomonosov ridge, which happens to be nearly two and a half miles below the ocean surface. Thirdly—and this is what ensured that the reaction, rather than being plaudits on a great technical achievement, was a chorus of worldwide condemnation—it was planted right in the heart of the Arctic.

By planting its flag, Russia was staking its claim to one of the most evocative places on earth. Home of the polar bear, the walrus and the arctic fox, generations of filmmakers, politicians and scientists have presented the region as a haven, an unspoiled wilderness, a place that had escaped the ravages wreaked by mankind on much of the rest of the planet. The freezing temperatures, fierce storms and glacial landscapes meant that humans had largely left the place alone. It became instead a place where scientists worked together for the common good, and where the people who lived around its edges did so in harmony with their surroundings. It acquired—like all the earth's wild places—an almost spiritual aspect. We felt better because it was there, being looked after on our behalf by those who understood what it was worth. It represented the very best of us. And now not only was a single nation laying claim to parts of it, it was doing so for mineral rights. They wanted to mine in our wilderness.

People have suspected for years that there would be mineral wealth in the region, buried deep beneath the ice. We now know for sure that there are vast deposits of oil and gas to be found there, but so far they have been left alone. The deposits were simply too hard to get to, conditions too difficult to work in, and besides there were enormous deposits available elsewhere. But the situation is changing rapidly. Our other sources are no longer so plentiful, global political instability is threatening some of the West's traditional energy supplies, and, perhaps most importantly, the Arctic itself is changing. Rising global temperatures mean that the sea ice is retreating. The Arctic's icy armour is melting away, and with it, its natural protection.

David Parker leads part of the climate monitoring team at the Met Office Hadley Centre, which collects and analyses climate data referenced by bodies such as the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to Parker, the changes to Arctic ice coverage have been dramatic. ""Each September we produce a report of the Arctic sea ice extent, going back to the 1950s,"" he says. ""Over that time it has shown a noticeable decline from about 8,500,000km2 to about 5,000,000km2 at the present.""

Like any environment, the Arctic is a complicated mix of conditions, as Parker explains: ""I have seen the sea ice and my first impression was just how rough and variable the textures were. It made it very difficult to distinguish between different kinds of ice, and sometimes between ice and water. For example there is something we call a 'melt pond' —this is where as the temperature rises a layer of water, sometimes almost a metre deep, forms over an area of ice. It can look just like open water, even to the best satellite instruments we use when calculating ice coverage. We do this by dividing the sea surface into 100km boxes. If within a box there is more that 15% ice, that is counted within what we call the ice extent."" Figures show that over the last half century 3,500,000 km2 of the Arctic that was once an intricate world of icebergs and pack ice when summer ends is now open water. And people are beginning to take note.

Russia's action sparked a media storm, with fears voiced of a 'Scramble for the Arctic' as countries positioned themselves for control of any future mineral exploitation of the region. There was even talk of a new Cold War.

As the debate raged, Martin Pratt, head of the International Boundaries Research Unit (IBRU), decided that the time had come for somebody to shed some light onto proceedings. The unit published a map showing which parts of the Arctic currently clearly fell under a country's national jurisdiction and which bits did not.

""The main aim of the map was to provide some objective factual information about the status of jurisdictional issues in the arctic,"" says Pratt. ""After the Russian flag planting, there was an extraordinary amount of media interest and an enormous amount of misrepresentation of the realities of what was actually going on in the Arctic. I felt it was necessary to try and dampen down the rumours that there was this big scramble, and what had been termed the new Cold War emerging over the resources in the Arctic. I'm afraid the realities are rather more mundane than the reports have painted it.""

The IBRU—based at Durham University—was set up to help mediate in conflicts involving land and maritime boundaries around the world. ""One of the ways we can do this is by providing practical assistance to governments or organisations involved in boundary making or border management.""

Any country with a coastline has the rights to any mineral wealth found below the seabed up to 200 nautical miles from its shoreline. This is called the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). However, if a country can prove that its continental shelf extends beyond this distance it can claim rights over the seabed to the point where the shelf ends.

The continental shelf is essentially the land connected to your country that is dry during an ice age but covered by fairly shallow seas during an interglacial period (between ice ages), such as the one we are living in now. There have been enough ice ages and interglacials for the edges of the shelf to be fairly well established. So geologically—and crucially legally—the continental shelf is treated as being part of your country that just happens to be temporarily underwater. However, the decision on where your continental shelf ends isn't yours to make. Countries have to gather scientific data supporting their claim and then present it to the UN for assessment under the Law of the Sea convention. There are five countries which can claim such rights in the Arctic: Canada, Norway, Russia, the US and (through its control of Greenland) Denmark. It meant that the IBRU's map was a complex thing to put together.

""We used a lot of public domain data sets to determine water depths, which are one of the criteria for figuring out the maximum claims that can be made,"" says Pratt. ""Most of the map is based on national legislation which defines the nautical territorial limits of EEZs, or the texts of treaties between neighbouring states defining their boundaries. And sometimes just the general knowledge we have about the nature of the claims of the various states.""

So the finished map is a combination of geography, geology, diplomatic agreements and international law. It is also, I suspect, a little inconvenient. Many of the agreements upon which it is based were made long before the stakes grew so high. Pratt tells me that he assumes all the information contained in his map is sitting in the embassies of all the interested countries, and he seriously doubts that there is anything in it that they didn't already know. Any one of them could have made the map themselves. They didn't. He did. And the response was overwhelming.

""It got picked up by the media and spread like wildfire around the world,"" he says. ""It was downloaded something like 40,000 times within the first 48 hours. I was taken completely by surprise, but it was exactly what I hoped the outcome would be, in that it allowed people to talk about what is going on up there. It has informed a lot of people and we have had dozens and dozens of requests to include it in policy papers, reports and articles.""

Pratt is keen to stress that on the ground—or to be more precise—under the water, the controversy has not changed much. The Russian expedition group that planted the flag was actually gathering data in support of its government's claim, so it was clear to them that planting a flag had no legal basis. Meanwhile Canada and Denmark have another couple of years before they make their final territorial submissions. What has changed is the rhetoric, with statements clearly designed for a patriotic home audience becoming increasingly strident. Pratt also stresses that while there are known to be vast oil and gas reserves in the region, the majority are firmly planted within the EEZs of the various Arctic nations and hence will not be disputed. What the jockeying for position is really about is what Donald Rumsfeld famously called 'the unknown unknowns'.

""Nobody knows what resources may or may not be discovered in the deep central Arctic,"" says Pratt. ""It is possible that there will be strange minerals or new organic materials found that could one day be valuable. This is where states defining their rights becomes so important, because you have one chance to do it. Once you have defined the outer limits of your continental shelf, anything that is left over is what's called 'The Area'. The Area is defined as being for the common heritage of mankind, and it is administered by the International Seabed Authority on behalf of us all. So in fact, we all do have a major stake in this process.""

This political situation has been caused by another process we all have a stake in—climate change. As a consequence of global warming, the Arctic ice sheets are retreating, and if something doesn't change, there will one day be nothing left to retreat. If and when this will happen is the question on many people's lips, and it is a question meteorologists around the world are trying
hard to answer. They do this by creating computer models of the world's climate, hitting the go button and seeing what happens.

Vicky Pope, head of climate change advice at the Hadley Centre, tells me what the models are saying.
""Our model projections suggest that the summer sea ice will disappear by around 2060 in a typical summer. In 2007 there was a particularly big loss which was actually caused by unusual ocean and weather conditions. During low years, the ice can become quite thin, so even when conditions return to normal it takes the ice several years to recover. So 2007, 2008, 2009 have been the worst three years in the record. Even though we are seeing a slight recovery from those sea ice levels, the overall trend is for less and less ice.""

In her role, Dr Pope is responsible for providing climate information to everyone from ministerial policy makers to businesses for their long term planning. ""We are being asked to talk about how the climate is changing in the Arctic. There certainly are concerns among people who do the strategic planning that resource conflicts could become an issue in that region. For example, the Russians are building a lot more ice breakers because they can see that there is a lot less sea ice, and they see an opportunity to open up shipping routes. There are a number of countries that see climate change as an opportunity for exploiting regional resources. We don't get directly involved in decisions; what we do is to provide the science advice that can be used when policy experts and strategic defence experts discuss the implications of climate projections.""

With strategic decisions influenced by their projections, a lot of faith is being placed in the skills of the climate modellers, whose tools are becoming increasingly more sophisticated. ""The work behind the climate models we use today has been going on for many, many years,"" says Dr Pope. ""We started off with an atmosphere model, then we added an ocean model, then a land model. Each time we add a new element we go back and refine the existing ones, so it is a constant process of improvement. We look at the basic physical laws that determine how aspects of the world, such as the atmosphere, behave, then we use these to create a series of equations representing the workings of the real world. You try to get as much information as you can into the computer so you can get as close to the real world as you can. We have just developed a model that now includes the carbon cycle. It includes what happens to the biology, which is important for the carbon, and it also includes what happens with the chemistry, which is important for the aerosols which affect the atmosphere.""

Modern climate models are increasingly sophisticated, more tightly focussed, better understood, and all pointing in the same direction—less summer ice in the Arctic, more open water and easier access to whatever lies buried there. At one time the notion of oil wells in the Arctic was unthinkable, but now Martin Pratt and many others believe some form of drilling in the region is inevitable.

Of course the drilling in itself, while unpalatable to many, won't necessarily amount to an environmental catastrophe —after all, the Arctic is a huge place. It's what it represents that is the problem—a continuance of our destructive dependence on a finite resource.

As the retreating Arctic ice highlights, climate change is a meteorological process, but a political problem—a problem causing concern at the highest levels, as Admiral James Stavridis, NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe showed in a recent interview discussing the situation in the Arctic.

""For now, the disputes in the north have been dealt with peacefully,"" he said, ""but climate change could alter the equilibrium over the coming years in the race for exploitation of more readily accessible natural resources. The broad implications stemming from the effects of climate change should cause today's global leaders to take stock, and unify their efforts to ensure the Arctic remains a zone of co-operation—rather than proceed down the icy slope towards a zone of competition, or worse a zone of conflict.""

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