Environmental and geopolitical issues in the Arctic

© F.Latreille/Tara Expéditions

25 May 2013

After three centuries of development based on the use of fossil fuels, mankind is undoubtedly entering a transitional phase. Today even the greatest skeptics can no longer deny that climate change is a reality that we need to understand in order to adapt. The warming of the atmosphere, disruptions in the world’s climate and rising sea levels have a global impact that are especially evident in the Arctic ecosystem. We can currently observe the accelerated melting of the polar ice pack, a phenomenon that in turn impacts the global climate, oceans, coastlines and the entire biodiversity of the region. The observation of what happens in this fragile and unique ecosystem is important, not only to help preserve it, but also to understand the causes and effects of climate change at a global level. Today certain important climate issues are particularly linked to the Arctic environment:

The temperature rise
Changes in surface temperatures in the Arctic are more significant than anywhere else in the world.  According to the U.S. National Center for the Study of Snow and Ice, Arctic water temperatures in winter have increased between 2 and 3 degrees over the last 50 years. This information shows that climate change is already a reality at the North Pole, directly affecting the ice pack. The latest study on climate published by the World Bank [i] predicts a 4°C rise in global temperature by 2100, but the increase in the Arctic Ocean could be as high as 8°C, with dramatic consequences on the ice pack, permafrost and the world’s oceans.

Melting ice
Unlike in Antarctica, the speed and extent of the Arctic ice melt has reached record proportions: in July 2012, NASA reported that 97% of the frozen surface of Greenland was subject to melting. In the summer of 2012, the Arctic ice pack attained its smallest area ever – 3.4 million km2, compared to an average of 6.5 million km2 over the past 50 years. The International Study Group on Climate Change (IPCC) originally predicted that by 2060 the ice pack will totally disappear in summer. This same group of experts, in its latest report, says the total melt could happen as early as 2025.  In September – when Tara is navigating the Northwest Passage in northern Canada – the IPCC will publish the first part of a new report with their most recent predictions about global warming and the polar ice pack melt.

Tara’s observations of the ice pack’s minimal surface this summer will be of great importance for the mathematical projections made by climate experts. In 2007, we observed a significant increase in the summer ice melt; it then decreased in subsequent years, but increased again in 2012, breaking all records. This year’s figures for the “minimum ice cap” – to be announced in mid-September – will tell us if we are experiencing a continuous exponential acceleration, or if the summer of 2012 was an exception.

Ocean acidification
A major climatic phenomenon, directly related to the increased level of CO2 in the atmosphere, ocean acidification has increased 30% since the beginning of the industrial era, reaching a level today comparable to the oceans more than 55 million years ago.[ii] The cold waters of the Arctic absorb more CO2 than oceans in tropical and temperate regions. The Arctic Ocean is particularly affected because   the surface area that absorbs CO2 increases as the ice melts, and is reduced when the water gets covered over by ice. The decrease in albedo – the ability of ice to reflect sunlight – in fact creates an exponential increase in the absorption of CO2 which has not been taken into account in ‘linear’ mathematical predictions.

What are the consequences of ocean acidification? Among the direct risks: the disappearance of many species that will not survive such a rapid rise in pH level of the water. Acidification also causes a change in the way water is stratified in layers by differences in temperature, salinity and acidity, with unknown consequences for the entire ecosystem. Basic research, the study and observation of this phenomenon in the Arctic Ocean, are absolutely essential in helping us understand, mitigate, and adapt to these changes.

Natural resources: challenges of exploitation and technological limits
Natural resources are extremely abundant in the Arctic, but they have remained largely untapped. Costs of mining, oil and gas drilling in the far north are still very high, and there are considerable risks of major disasters. But because of warming waters and the melting ice pack, the situation is rapidly changing. The immense reserves of fossil fuels in the Arctic will inevitably be exploited in this period of rising energy prices worldwide, especially as new shipping routes open, giving easier access to the region. The precious Arctic resources are coveted by both public and private companies from all over the world, and are becoming an important factor in the geopolitical chess game between the nations bordering the region.

Geopolitics of the Arctic: new maritime routes and economic issues
We can see the extreme importance of the Arctic region for studying and adapting to climate change. More than a hot spot of biodiversity, the Arctic today is the terrain for difficult international negotiations. The melting ice pack is opening up new sea routes for economic activities – exploitation of natural resources, trade, and tourism. This will oblige bordering countries and the international community to resume the negotiations on governance, previously blocked by the Cold War.

The search for peaceful and sustainable governance of the Arctic is, in itself, a difficult objective to establish. Current negotiations at the UN, and among the nations within the polar circle, still follow a nationalistic logic, subject to intense debates at the Arctic Council. Energy security (USA), financing a primary economy (Russia), interest in fisheries (Norway) and independence (Greenland) – these are some of the issues on the table. The current context – economic crisis and important geopolitical changes – does nothing to help the progress of negotiations.

What governance for the Arctic?
Faced with the major economic interests at stake, we need to affirm the ecological emergency and the importance of the Arctic for the global climate. At the same time we must recognize that demands for total conservation are utopian – impossible to achieve in the current political context. As was the case for the Antarctic a few decades ago, the Arctic can and must be the site of a new dynamic of collective agreement for the establishment of peaceful and sustainable governance of its resources, based on the principle of general interest, and justified by the importance of the region for all life on our blue planet.

More than ever before, scientific research is necessary to understand the climatic and ecological issues. By bringing together major scientific institutions from around the world in a project of common interest, the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition is totally implicated in this urgent mission. The study of the Arctic Ocean can indeed reveal vital information for anticipating the consequences of global warming and motivating the necessary actions to better adapt to a fragile and changing planet.

[i] in “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided” WB, November 2012
[ii] in “Rapid acidification of the ocean,” Le Figaro, mai 2013, report of the Bergen Conference on ocean acidification.