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The melting Arctic is becoming an oil and gas battleground

A recent paper published in the journal Science has brought attention to a critical issue: the transformation of the melting Arctic into a battleground for resource extraction. 

This situation, which the experts compare to a modern-day gold rush, is emerging as climate change causes the ice to recede, exposing new land and sea areas for exploitation.

Arctic energy resources

Nations are scrambling to take advantage of the enormous economic opportunities presented by these newly accessible regions. 

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has provided staggering figures, estimating around 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil in the Arctic, with a significant portion, up to 84%, located offshore. 

This untapped resource has drawn the interest of major oil corporations, with Exxon Mobil, a U.S. oil giant, highlighting the Arctic as one of the most promising yet least explored regions for oil exploration.

The prospects extend beyond oil. The USGS estimates the presence of 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 44 billion barrels of liquid natural gas in the Arctic. These figures underline the vast potential of the region in terms of energy resources.

Environmental action

The rush for Arctic resources is not without its controversies, and environmental group Greenpeace pointed out the “bitter irony” in the situation. 

The melting Arctic ice, a clear indicator of climate change’s impact, is being viewed as an opportunity for profit rather than a warning sign of the environmental costs associated with such changes.

The conflict between economic interests and environmental concerns has led to legal challenges. Notably, environmental activists have taken the Norwegian government to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for allowing oil exploration in the Arctic. This illustrates the growing tension between environmental protection and resource exploitation.

The urgency of the situation is underscored by data from NASA, which reveals that summer Arctic sea ice is diminishing at a rate of 12.2 percent each decade, a change attributed to human-induced climate change.

Drilling operations in the melting Arctic

The geopolitical aspect of this issue is equally complex. Nations like Norway, Canada, Denmark, the USA, and Russia have staked claims to “extended continental shelves” under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

Approximately 40 percent of the Arctic consists of land, while another third is comprised of continental shelves in relatively shallow waters less than 500 meters deep. Arctic countries exercise rights to drill in their territories, leasing areas to companies such as Shell and BP for drilling operations.

The full potential of Arctic resources was not realized until 2009. That year, the US Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic might hold 30% of the planet’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13% of its undiscovered oil. 

Over the years, interest in the region has intensified, setting the stage for conflict where economic gains are weighed against environmental preservation and the realities of climate change.

Ecological value

Jonathan W. Moore is an expert in the Earth Ocean Research Group at Simon Fraser University and lead author of the report in the journal Science.

“As climate change warms Earth, the melting cryosphere creates nascent ecosystems that have future value as habitat but that are also the frontlines for resource extraction,” wrote Moore and his co-authors.

“For example, glacier retreat uncovers rivers and valleys that go through rapid ecological succession to provide new habitats for important species, such as moose and Pacific salmon.”

“However, mining companies are looking to retreating glaciers for newly exposed mineral deposits. This proglacial mining is a global pressure, from Greenland to Kyrgyzstan to western Canada.” 

“Yet environmental and mining policies might fail to consider the future ecological value and capacity of emerging habitats.”

More about Arctic warming

As discussed above, the Arctic region is undergoing significant changes due to global warming. Active melting of sea ice and glaciers has been observed at an accelerated rate. This melting has led to a reduction in the overall ice cover, impacting local ecosystems and global weather patterns.

Causes of Arctic melting

Human-induced climate change is the primary driver of Arctic melting. The release of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane has led to a rise in global temperatures. These warmer temperatures are more pronounced in the Arctic, causing ice to melt faster than in previous decades.

Human-induced climate change is the primary driver of Arctic melting. The release of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane has led to a rise in global temperatures. These warmer temperatures are more pronounced in the Arctic, causing ice to melt faster than in previous decades. Let’s take a more detailed look at the causes.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The most significant cause of Arctic melting is the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). These emissions are largely due to human activities, such as burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), deforestation, and industrial processes. These gases trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, leading to a rise in global temperatures.

Global Warming

The trapped heat from greenhouse gases leads to global warming, which has a pronounced effect in the Arctic. The region is warming at least twice as fast as the global average, a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification. This rapid warming leads to the melting of sea ice, glaciers, and permafrost.

Albedo Effect Reduction

Snow and ice have a high albedo, meaning they reflect most of the sun’s energy back into space. As ice melts, it exposes darker surfaces like ocean water or land, which absorb more solar energy. This absorption of heat further accelerates the melting process, creating a feedback loop.

Ocean Currents and Temperatures

Changes in ocean currents and warmer ocean temperatures also contribute to the melting of Arctic ice. Warmer water from lower latitudes is moving into the Arctic Ocean, melting sea ice from below.

Atmospheric Circulation Changes

Changes in atmospheric circulation patterns, influenced by global warming, can lead to unusual weather patterns in the Arctic. For instance, warmer air masses may move into the Arctic, contributing to further warming and melting.

Black Carbon

Emissions of black carbon (soot) from industrial activities, and burning of fossil fuels and biomass, also contribute to Arctic melting. When black carbon settles on snow and ice, it reduces their albedo and leads to faster melting.

Natural Variability

While human-induced factors are the primary cause, natural variability also plays a role. However, the current rate and scale of Arctic melting are beyond what can be attributed to natural cycles alone.

Understanding and addressing these causes is critical for efforts to mitigate Arctic melting and its global impacts.

Consequences of Arctic melting

The melting of Arctic ice has several significant consequences:

  • Sea Level Rise: As glaciers and ice sheets melt, they contribute to rising sea levels, which can lead to coastal flooding.
  • Ecosystem Disruption: Native species, such as polar bears and seals, depend on sea ice for their habitat and are facing challenges due to its loss.
  • Climate Impact: The reduction of ice cover affects global weather patterns, potentially leading to more extreme weather events.

Efforts to mitigate Arctic melting

Efforts to mitigate Arctic melting focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This involves transitioning to renewable energy sources, improving energy efficiency, and adopting sustainable practices globally. International agreements, like the Paris Agreement, aim to limit global temperature rise and reduce the impacts of climate change.

In summary, without significant efforts to combat climate change, the Arctic will continue to warm, and ice melting will accelerate. This could have irreversible effects on global climates and ecosystems. However, concerted global action can slow down the rate of melting and mitigate its impacts.

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