Arctic melt will impact climate before policy
Dwindling Arctic summer sea ice is unlikely to spur new policies to curb fossil fuels without more evidence of environmental impact, given stalled U.N. climate talks and political attitudes to mineral resources.
The area of Arctic sea ice reached a record minimum on Aug 26, in a 33-year satellite record, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), following a progressive melt and thinning which could see an ice-free North Pole in summer within a decade or two.
That throws a spotlight on Arctic oil and gas, as explorers gain access, and the global sector as melting ice highlights the impact of carbon emissions through global warming.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimated four years ago that the Arctic region “may constitute the geographically largest unexplored prospective area for petroleum remaining on Earth,” in the only publicly available estimate of the fossil fuel resource.
It calculated that the area north of the Arctic Circle contained about 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30% of the undiscovered natural gas, and 20% of undiscovered natural gas liquids, excluding unconventional resources such as gas hydrate and shale gas and oil.
The Arctic has warmed faster than the rest of the planet in part because of an effect where open water absorbs more heat than reflective ice, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of warming.
Surface temperatures last year over the Arctic Ocean were an average 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer compared with the 1981-2010 period, ten times 0.15 degrees warming globally, according to data from the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Local impacts include threats to wildlife and coastal erosion from a larger expanse of open water.
Wider risks could include disruption of weather patterns in the northern hemisphere, and even release of the powerful greenhouse gas methane from vast ice-like deposits on the Arctic seabed and from melting onshore permafrost.
It would take palpable impacts to jolt an international energy response to melting Arctic ice.
One such impact would be disruption to northern hemisphere weather, as posed by two studies published in the past six months in the journals Geophysical Research Letters and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Each considered a direct connection between Arctic ice melt and heavier-than-average snowfall in western Europe and the eastern United States in the winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11.
One proposed that warmer, open water in the Arctic was responsible for an observed slowing of the northern jet stream, leading to more persistent, “stuck” weather patterns at mid-latitude.
High latitude jet streams are speeded by a temperature gradient between less cold and extremely cold air at the north and south poles, much as a river flows faster down a steeper slope.
Both papers found that, for unclear reasons, less Arctic sea ice was correlated with an atmospheric circulation similar to that well known for bringing cold air and heavier snowfall to mid latitudes, meteorologically known as the negative phase of the winter North Atlantic Oscillation.
See this graphic, from the University of New Hampshire: http://link.reuters.com/cyv93s
The papers were a first attempt at unravelling the inevitable impact of a warmer Arctic Ocean on atmospheric circulation, but in the context of a short data record and the chaotic multitude of factors which drive the weather.
Contradicting the theory, the 2011 summer saw the third biggest Arctic sea ice melt on record, but was followed by a relatively mild winter in western Europe.
Without firmer evidence for risk, an energy policy response will be muted.
U.N.-backed talks are the international forum for cutting global carbon emissions and curbing fossil fuels and have been a victim of consensus voting, where decisions must be agreed unanimously by 194 participating countries including oil exporters, which stand to lose out from CO2 cuts.
It seems there is little chance of a melting Arctic adding impetus to talks which have all but stalled since the latest round kicked off in 2007, the same year as the previous record ice melt, and which have since produced non-binding resolutions and no global deal.
Meanwhile, attempts to drive local action, such as Greenpeace’s “Save the Arctic” campaign, appear optimistic despite a worthy aim to prevent spills in a unique place.
Greenpeace is campaigning for a moratorium along the lines of the 1991 Antarctic Protocol on Environmental Protection.
Some of the world’s biggest energy producers including the United States, Norway and Russia ratified the Antarctic agreement, whose article 7 states that “any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.”
But none of these countries border Antarctica, and a better signal may be their approach to the Brussels-based Energy Charter, the world’s most internationally ratified energy treaty which 51 countries have signed.
It binds members to rules on energy access and arbitration in the case of disputes, for example to protect investors in oil pipeline projects while recognising national sovereignty.
European Union countries have ratified the treaty, alongside central Asian producers and consuming nations like Japan, but the United States, Canada, Russia and Norway have not.
The biggest Arctic natural gas resource is off the north coast of Russia, while the largest Arctic crude oil resource is off the northern coasts of U.S. Alaska and Canada.
These countries have exclusive rights to much of these resources, under the U.N. Convention on the law of the sea up to 350 nautical miles out, and it may require an unlikely, unilateral restraint not to exploit them.
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2012.