22nd Jul 2017

Europe's Arctic adventure - The new cold rush for resources

  • The Arctic is melting, but the lure of resources is just too strong (Photo: NN -

In a four-part series, EUobserver heads to the Arctic - the very top of Europe - and speaks to oil company executives, environmentalists, government ministers, bio-chemists, engineers, geo-politics experts and the bright young things that are heading to the region ahead of the new ‘Cold Rush' - the bonanza of resource development that is just beginning to take off in this stark, fragile region. In the first part, we speak to scientists who reveal that the Arctic is melting much faster than earlier predicted.

EUOBSERVER / TROMSO - PART ONE - There's this grizzled old guy in the hospital with worsening lung cancer. The doctors can't tell him whether it's fatal yet, but each new test shows a rapidly deteriorating condition.

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He's been a heavy smoker all his life, although he's trying to quit, but one day, while he's wandering the corridors, he comes across a long-abandoned storeroom and it's rammed to the gills with cigarettes, cigars, roll-your-own tobacco of every brand and region. There are Cuban cigars, Moroccan apple-flavoured nargileh tobacco, Swedish snus and jars of aromatic pipe shag. It's an Aladdin's cave of tobacco left over from the days when hospital cafeterias still sold cigarettes, and the nurses and security staff are nowhere to be seen.

The man briefly thinks that he should just forget he ever opened the storeroom door and get back to the business of quitting, but he's dazzled by the hoard and instead stuffs as much of it into his pyjamas as he can to take back to his bed and puffs his nicotine-addled brains out.

There's no tobacco hoard in a cupboard somewhere in the Arctic, but there is however a quarter of the world's remaining undiscovered oil and gas now within reach as a result of the far north rapidly melting.

Like the old man in the hospital, the European Union and countries on the shores of the Arctic sea have said to themselves: "There may be a chance that we can slow down and reverse global warming, so we really should give up our addiction to fossil fuels. But how can we turn our backs - and our wallets - on such a bonanza, even if it's full of the very stuff that caused the problem in the first place?"

Or is such an environmentalist caricature unfair to the people of the northern regions, for the most part long shut out from the industrial development and the wealth of the more southerly parts of Europe, Canada, Russia and the United States?

Many of those living in the Arctic are aboriginal people, who have historically borne the double burden of underdevelopment in their regions and racial prejudice. And until recently very little has been available to anyone up north apart from far-from-bountiful farming and the occasional mine that inevitably closes down.

Can we really say "No" to improving the standard of living in the north through development, especially if it can be done sustainably?

With recent months in particular seeing both a cascade of truly alarming news on how fast the Arctic is changing and pronouncements from the European Union and other circumpolar powers on plans for exploitation of newly accessible resources, the EUobserver decided to visit Europe's patch of the Arctic, the northernmost tip of mainland Norway - still outside the EU, but very much Brussels' advance guard up in the high north - to find out the reality behind the headlines about the coming "scramble for the Arctic", and look at all sides in the debate over the Arctic's future.

Methane burps

The situation at the top of the world has taken a sharp turn for the worse just in the last few weeks.

On 6 September, leading European and American ice specialists at the US National Ice Center reported that for the first time, a ring of navigable waters around the Arctic ice cap opened up the fabled Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic archipelago - the maritime Holy Grail of a faster trade route from Europe to Asia sought for centuries by explorers - and the Northern Sea Route, also known as the Northeast Passage, over Eurasia, at the same time.

Then, in late September, Swedish and Russian scientists found the first evidence that millions of tonnes of methane - a gas that is 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide - is bubbling up from beneath the Siberian Arctic seabed.

The amount of methane stored beneath the Arctic is greater than the world's remaining global stores of coal and it is now rising up from the bottom of the ocean through "methane chimney" discovered by scientists aboard the research ship Jacob Smirnitskyi.

Days later, British scientists aboard the James Clark Ross found hundreds of plumes of methane burping up from the Arctic seabed to the west of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

NASA's top climate scientist, James Hansen, says that the release of methane clathrates from permafrost regions and beneath the seabed will unleash powerful feedback forces that could produce runaway climate change that cannot be controlled - the so-called methane time bomb - a prediction of radical environmental transformation far worse than the worst-case scenarios theorised by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Then on Tuesday (28 October), the European Space Agency reported that Arctic sea ice was thinning at a record rate, with the thickness of sea ice in large parts of the Arctic having declined by as much as 19 percent last winter compared to the previous five winters.

Last days of the 'ice bear'

"The Arctic is warming at two times the rate of the rest of the world," says Nalan Koc, a senior scientist with the polar climate programme at the Norwegian Polar Institute, in Tromso, explaining why all of this is happening.

Tromso, in the far north of Norway and home to the world's northernmost university, at the same time is preparing itself for the economic bonanza that the melting will bring.

Nalan Koc, however, is not as excited as other Tromso inhabitants. In a Power Point presentation of this Arctic apocalypse, she starkly lists the myriad ways in which the environment is fundamentally altering. "Amplified by positive feedback, the Arctic is seeing increased precipitation, declining snow cover, rising river flows, thawing permafrost, melting glaciers, retreating summer sea ice, rising sea levels, and ocean salinity changes making the water less saline."

The talk, despite its subject, is deceptively banal. Where are the four horsemen? A moon turned blood-red? Instead, the end of days is being announced not by skeletonous biblical heralds but in bullet points and embedded videos that take three minutes to load.

The permafrost is melting under tundra that previously was stable, she explains, buckling roads and highways as the ground beneath them gives way.

In the marine environment, sea temperatures are rising and the ice cover is melting. Ice-dependent species such as the polar bear, which the Norwegians more accurately call "isbjorn" or "ice bear," as well as the walrus and the ringed seal all face an uncertain future. Some scientists believe the polar bear will be extinct by mid-century.

"When you've been around up here for as long as I have, you begin to see it with your own eyes from year to year," she says. "You can feel it in your bones."

Last year saw a record low extent of Arctic sea ice cover - 4.3 million square kilometres - more than 40 percent below averages in the 1980s and more than 20 percent below the previous record low in 2005. "But more important than the extent is the volume of the ice. Most of the older thicker ice is not surviving from one summer to the next. As of 2007, most of the ice was three or four-year-old ice. As of 2008, most ice is just one year old."

The massive ice loss and thinning is forcing scientists to quickly ratchet lower even their worst expectations - the 2007 melting came some 30 years ahead of model predictions.

In 2004, it was predicted that the ice would have melted sufficiently to allow commercial traffic in the Arctic Ocean by 2090. In 2007, it was predicted that commercial traffic would be able to cross by 2040. As of 2008, the predictions are for some time in the next five years, with the first start-up possibly in 2009. Models now predict an ice-free Arctic Ocean in the summer some time between 2013 and 2040.

The last time the Arctic Ocean was ice-free in the summer was over a million years ago.

Her colleague, Kit Kovacs, the Biodiversity Research Programme leader at the institute says: "The changes are happening so rapidly that scientists are having trouble processing it all. From initial tests to publishing papers takes at a minimum months or a couple of years, but change is happening much faster than that.

"The biodiversity loss is just as profound as if there were a loss of the Amazon rainforest within the space of five years."

Oil and gas bonanza

What looks like the end for the polar bear, however, looks like Christmas for resource companies and European energy security concerns.

Johan Petter Barlindhaug, the chair of North Energy, a northern-Norway-based oil-and-gas start-up currently exploring energy sources on the Norwegian continental shelf, says the melting Arctic could offer northern peoples, who have historically lived in a very much underdeveloped region, a chance to have similar standards of living as those who live in the cities and towns further south.

"Climate change poses lots of threats, but it also opens up a range of possibilities," he says.

Oil companies like North Energy and Norwegian energy giant Statoil Hydro believe the Arctic holds as much as 25 percent of the worlds undiscovered oil and gas deposits - as much as the combined reserves of Canada and Saudi Arabia.

Russia's Gazprom already has approximately 34 trillion cubic metres (113 trillion cubic feet) of gas under development in the Barents Sea and Moscow is claiming territory in the Arctic that contains an estimated 586 billion barrels of oil.

Mineral resources may also abound, particularly coal, iron, lead, copper, nickel, zinc and sulphides, as well as precious minerals such as gold and diamonds. Recent diamond discoveries in the Canadian Arctic have made the country, which previously didn't produce any of the stones, the third biggest exporter of diamonds in the world.

On maps that place the North Pole at the centre of the world, instead of the equator, Mr Barlindhaug shows how a melting Arctic also opens up three different shortcuts for shipping goods between Europe and Asia - routes that will save shipping firms, exporters and importers, and the world's navies and smugglers - billions of euros.

The shipping industry is hoping for a 20 percent saving, he enthuses, with still greater savings for the megaships that cannot fit through the Suez or Panama canals and have to sail round the tips of Africa or South America.

Although Mr Barlindhaug believes that the third shortcut - straight across the pole - offers the most potential.

"The Northwest and Northeast Passages aren't as important as building ports on Iceland and in Norway and Russia," he says. "This is because the Canadians view the Northwest Passage as domestic, and there's something of the same with the Northeast Passage, which is within Russian borders.

"In any case, international waters closer to the North Pole provide routes that are much shorter. But it's also a matter of speed and cost. Between the Canadian or Russian islands, you can't pick up much speed while you're navigating through them. It's too narrow.

"But at 20-25 knots across the pole, then you're really saving some money. It would take just five days to cross from the Bering Sea to the Barent Sea. It doesn't need to be completely ice free."

He then moves on to the expanded fishing opportunities and potential for discoveries of new medicines derived from invertebrates living in extreme polar environments that round out the economic bounty becoming available as the climate warms up.

Some 10 percent of global white fish stocks swim through the waters of the Barents Sea, the Bering Sea, and near Iceland, offering catches worth billions of euros.

Nonetheless, "bio-prospecting" for new medicines is by far the greater catch, believes Mr Barlindhaug: "These invertebrates are chemical factories that will produce the next generation of medicines. They're far more important than the fish that is up there."

In a visit to brand-spanking new labs at the University of Tromso, Jeanette Andersen, of Mabcent-SFI, a public-private bio-prospecting outfit launched last year with €20.5 million (180m NOK) in funding, explains the potential for new treatments and cures coming from molluscs that poison passing fish or colourless mini-starfish that love the cold.

"The marine environment in the high Arctic is unparalleled with respect to combination of temperature and light regimes," she says. "This implies evolution of organisms with unique physiological and biochemical adaptations."

She says that the potential is enormous, from antibiotics, chemotherapy, and painkillers to anti-bacterials, anti-oxidents, anti-inflammatory medicines, but Mabcent also hopes to discover creatures that have cosmetic and industrial applications, and even better food and drink preservation.

"But all high-profit," she enthuses, describing how her biologist and chemist colleagues dive off into the depths of the Arctic Ocean like a team of submariner Indiana Joneses, before they race back to the university to freeze the hundreds of different specimens. They then grind them into a pulp that is investigated by viking boffins at stupidly expensive machines who identify the wild new molecules produced by the exotic biochemistry of these nigh-on alien creatures.

"Living in environments that range from 1.8 to 8 degrees celsius, these organisms are adapted to cold temperatures. As you warm up the metabolism, you speed up the effectiveness of enzymes, so the thinking is that enzymes existing at these temperatures will work faster in warm humans."

However, some of the different industries opening up as Arctic waters open up pose a threat to others.

Pooh-poohing the idea that oil and gas exploration threatens the environment, North Energy's Mr Barlindhaug reckons it's a massive expansion of unsustainable fishing practices and illegal fishing that pose the greatest threat, particularly to bio-prospecting.

"Bottom trawling is much more damaging than oil and gas exploration, as the you find oil all over the rocks and sand on the sea bed. These creatures are used to it - there's nothing to worry about from oil and gas exploration.

"Bioprospectors should be more scared about increased fishing activity. That'll damage these organisms much more," he insists.

Jeanette back at Mabcent is not so sure: "We need to be worried about oil and gas exploration. What Mr Barlindhaug said is too easy an answer to the question of oil spills. Some organisms will adapt, yes, but others are very vulnerable."

In the second part of the EUobserver's look at the politics and business of the melting Arctic, we look at Kirkenes, a small harbour town sometimes called 'Little Murmansk' for its 10 percent Russian population, and how it is set to be transformed by the oil and gas bonanza opening up as the ice disappears.

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