Tuesday, October 02, 2007

North Pole Oil

Photo - Andy Armstrong/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The summer of 2007 has seen the lowest extent of sea ice at the North Pole in recorded history. As of September 16th sea ice extent was 1.59 million square miles – 461,000 square miles less than the previous low for the day... which was recorded in 2005.

Sea ice extent is continuing to fall, although this is the end of the melt season and it has slowed drastically. The image above, from the National Snow and Ice Data Center shows the extent of the ice cover on September 16th of this year. The magenta line is the median summer time minimum value for the years 1979-2006. It’s easy to see the scope of the problem.

The Natural Resources Defense Council reports:
Average temperatures in the Arctic region are rising twice as fast as they are elsewhere in the world. Arctic ice is getting thinner, melting and rupturing. For example, the largest single block of ice in the Arctic, the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, had been around for 3,000 years before it started cracking in 2000. Within two years it had split all the way through and is now breaking into pieces.
It is widely accepted that this increase in melting is caused by Global Warming. The loss of ice is actually accelerating melting by exposing more open water, which, being darker in color, absorbs significantly more solar energy than the reflective white icecap, further heating the polar sea.

The Natural Resources Defense Council also tells us of the effects the melting is having on the local environment, the people and the animals who live there:
The melting of once-permanent ice is already affecting native people, wildlife and plants. When the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf splintered, the rare freshwater lake it enclosed, along with its unique ecosystem, drained into the ocean. Polar bears, whales, walrus and seals are changing their feeding and migration patterns, making it harder for native people to hunt them. And along Arctic coastlines, entire villages will be uprooted because they're in danger of being swamped. The native people of the Arctic view global warming as a threat to their cultural identity and their very survival.
There is however another threat to their cultural identity and the environment, a threat being exposed by the disappearance of the sea ice.


Beneath the ice shelf lies the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,200 mile long underwater ridge which Russia claims is linked to the Siberian continental shelf. It is estimated that the ridge contains ten billion tons of gas and oil. It is also rich in diamonds, gold and other metals.

This article from the Daily News gives a look at what is at stake:
Under current international law, the countries ringing the Arctic - -Russia, Canada, the U.S., Norway, and Denmark (which owns Greenland) - are limited to a 200-mile economic zone around their coasts.

…none can claim jurisdiction over the Arctic seabed because the geological structure does not match the surrounding continental shelves.
Predictably, there is now a rush of countries performing research to prove Lomonosov Ridge and other areas of seabed are a part of their landmass in order to lay claim to the riches under the thinning ice cap.


Russia was the first to stake a claim. In June an expedition using a nuclear powered icebreaker returned, claiming to have geological evidence that the Lomonosov Ridge was indeed part of the Russian continental shelf. This from The Guardian:
According to Russia's media, the geologists returned with the "sensational news" that the Lomonosov ridge was linked to Russian Federation territory, boosting Russia's claim over the oil-and-gas rich triangle. The territory contained 10bn tonnes of gas and oil deposits, the scientists said.
Russia's Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper celebrated the discovery by printing a large map of the North Pole. It showed the new "addition" to Russia - the size of France, Germany and Italy combined - under a white, blue and red Russian flag.

More recently Russia sent two mini-subs to the sea floor at the North Pole to post a titanium Russian flag and make claim to the territory. The Guardian reports:
Russia symbolically staked its claim to billions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves in the Arctic Ocean today when two mini submarines reached the seabed more than two and a half miles beneath the North Pole.
In a record-breaking dive, the two craft planted a one metre-high titanium Russian flag on the underwater Lomonosov ridge, which Moscow claims is directly connected to its continental shelf.
However, other countries are not pleased:
… the dangerous mission prompted ridicule and skepticism among other contenders for the Arctic's energy wealth, with Canada comparing it to a 15th century colonial land grab.
"This isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say: 'We're claiming this territory'," the Canadian foreign minister, Peter MacKay, told CTV television.
Mr MacKay predicted that the Russian expedition would not bear fruit, adding: "There is no threat to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic ... we're not at all concerned about this mission. Basically it's just a show by Russia."

With the melting of the sea ice the fabled Northwest Passage is now opening in the summer and Canada is laying a sovereign claim to it. This from the Canada’s CBC News:
It used to be, when it came to claims of Arctic sovereignty, that it was the Americans we feared. They, after all, had the multi-hulled icebreakers and nuclear submarines to transit our Northwest Passage virtually at will.
But for a number of years now, Russia has been getting into the hunt as well. And its latest move — a naval manoeuvre currently underway that is designed to plant an actual Russian flag, in a titanium capsule, at the base of the North Pole, 4,200 metres below sea level — raises the international stakes considerably.
Canadians have always tended to regard the northernmost reaches of their land as an integral, if isolated, part of the country. The vast and frozen Arctic archipelago even gets its own reference in the country's national anthem: "The true north strong and free."
But how much of "Canada's North" is Canada's? Just about everyone agrees that the many islands that dot the Arctic to the north of Canada's mainland belong to Canada. But what about the water between them? Who, if anyone, has jurisdiction over the waters separating Somerset Island from Devon Island, or Melville Island from Banks Island?
The Canadian government says the jurisdiction is clear — they're Canadian waters. But the U.S. and some other countries, especially now Russia, don't agree. They see the Northwest Passage as an international strait that any ship should be free to transit. And increasingly, they are seeing the Arctic seabed as a resource to be carved up among certain northern nations.
Not only has the formerly naturally off-limits polar sea floor become an issue, but so also has the once elusive Northwest Passage become a catastrophe-widened super highway for shipping squabbles:
Plainly put, the Arctic ice is thinning at an alarming rate. Because of global warming, there are predictions that the Northwest Passage may be open for large parts of the summer in as little as 15 years.
Critics say that risks turning the Northwest Passage into the commercial sea route that explorers began searching for in the 15th Century. They say the rest of the world is sure to take more notice of a shipping route between Asia and Europe that would be 5,000 kilometres shorter than the current route through the Panama Canal.

On August 14th of this year a team of forty scientists set out on a Swedish Icebreaker sailing from Svalbard, a remote Norwegian island. The group, ten of them Danish, will also be accompanied by a Russian ice breaker. Their destination is the Lomonosov Ridge.
From the Telegraph:
According to the Danish government, evidence gathered during the trip could clinch ownership of the North Pole for the nation, which has a population of fewer than six million and whose entire mainland lies further south than John O'Groats.
Its claim to the Pole is based on its ownership of Greenland, which has a population of only 57,000 and was awarded to the Danes in 1933 by an international court which rejected Norway's claim to the vast, frozen island.
Helge Sander, Denmark's minister of science, technology and innovation, said: "The preliminary investigations done so far are very promising. There are things suggesting that Denmark could be given the North Pole."
Christian Marcussen of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, the expedition leader, said: "We will be collecting data for a possible [sovereignty] demand.
That however is not the only area of contention for Denmark. They are also involved in an ongoing dispute with Canada.


Very near the North Pole is tiny Hans Island, barren and uninhabited. Only half a square mile in size, it has become the center of a dispute between Canada and Denmark over the territory.
This dispute has been going on since 1984 when Denmark’s Minister for Greenland Affairs flew in by helicopter, raised the Danish flag, buried a bottle of brandy at its base leaving a note saying: “Welcome to the Danish Island”.
Newsweek reports:
Canada and Denmark are engaged in a vigorous cold war of words and gestures over who has claim to Hans Island. In recent years, both have dispatched expeditions to the Godforsaken place and planted their flags; both have sent warships to assert their claims. For the two countries, the island represents much more than a speck on the charts; it's a test case that will help determine the future of the world's last great land grab, a struggle for virgin territory that mixes geology and geopolitics.
Then two years ago the Canadians stirred up the dispute some more:
The dispute erupted again two years ago when former Canadian Defense Minister Bill Graham set foot on the rock while Canadian troops hoisted the Maple Leaf flag.
Denmark sent a letter of protest to Ottawa, while Canadians and Danes took out competing Google ads, each proclaiming sovereignty over the rock 680 miles (1,094 kilometers) south of the North Pole.
Some Canadians even called for a boycott of Danish pastries.

This past July, Canadian Prime Minister Stephan Harper announced that between six and eight new warships would be built to patrol the Northwest Passage.
Stephan Harper – “The ongoing discovery of the North’s resource riches – coupled with the potential impact of climate change – has made the region an area of growing interest and concern.
Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic.
We either use it or lose it.
And make no mistake, this Government intends to use it.
Because Canada’s Arctic is central to our identity as a northern nation.
It is part of our history.
And it represents the tremendous potential of our future.
That’s why I’m so pleased to be here today.
To announce our first moves forward to defend and strengthen Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.
The first element of the plan will be the construction and deployment of six to eight new state-of-the-art offshore patrol ships.”

In addition to the new patrol ships the Canadians are also installing a system of listening devices throughout the northern waters to monitor the ship and boat traffic in the area as shown in the following video from CBC News.


Once again from The Guardian:
Russia first made a submission in 2001 to the UN commission on the limits of the continental shelf, seeking to push Russia's maritime borders beyond the existing 200-mile zone. It was rejected.
But the latest scientific findings are likely to prompt Russia to lodge another confident bid - and will alarm the US, which is mired in a 13-year debate over ratification of a UN treaty governing international maritime rights.
The Law of the Sea Treaty is the world's primary means of settling disputes over exploitation rights and navigational routes in international waters. Russia and 152 other countries have ratified it.
But the US has refused, arguing it gives too much power to the UN. If the US does not ratify it, Russia's bid for the Arctic's energy wealth will go unchallenged, proponents believe.
Given this administration’s bad attitude toward the UN, ratification might have gone the way of Kyoto – leaving us to fight the world in the Arctic – but there are clambering capitalists so eager to start cashing in – even with more environmental protections – they may manage to turn it around in time.

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