Welcome to the new Arctic

Melting ice is beginning to transform the world's shipping routes. But will it launch a new Cold War?

By David Fairhall
Published December 10, 2011 6:45PM (EST)
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This article was adapted from David Fairhall's book, "Cold Front," available from Counterpoint on December 20.

On August 27, 2008, a satellite looking down on the Arctic Ocean observed something possibly unprecedented in human experience. Certainly for the first time in the region’s short recorded history, both the fleetingly navigable routes that skirt this frozen sea – the north-West Passage, and the north-East Passage Russians usually refer to as the northern Sea Route – were ice-free at the same time. For a few weeks that late summer, a ship could circumnavigate the North Pole without being trapped between massive sheets of ice and the bleak shores of northern Siberia or the Canadian archipelago.

At first sight, this rare climatic coincidence might seem to be of no more than academic interest. The North Pole is after all just a theoretical, symbolically significant point in an empty, frozen sea. Its circumnavigation is a largely meaningless exercise. But crossing the polar ocean is altogether a different matter. Sailors began probing for a safe way through its many dangers hundreds of years ago, almost as soon as they realised the world was round.

They were searching for a short cut from the Atlantic to the Pacific – a direct route from Europe to China and the East Indies that would save many thousands of miles by comparison with the long haul round Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope and across the notoriously stormy southern ocean. Eventually, two partial short cuts were artificially created in the form of the Suez and Panama canals – both of them enormous advances, yet neither eliminating the potential benefits of a polar route.

Many charts use a Mercator projection which grossly distorts the polar regions. And even without that distortion, our egocentric atlases can affect the whole way we envisage the world. A child growing up in Western Europe (I speak for myself) will imagine that to reach Japan by way of the north-East Passage, a ship must turn right at the top of Norway, then sail way across the map before turning down again into the Pacific. Whereas in fact, a straight course past Norway and across the north Pole – using a chart based on an azimuthal projection – leads directly to the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia, where the north-East and north-West passages converge.

Distance savings of up to 50 per cent are therefore possible on important trade routes – with commensurate financial benefits – if only some way can be found to overcome the ice barrier. A container ship sailing from Western Europe to Japan, for example, could save several thousand miles by using a polar route instead of the Suez Canal.

But such navigational arithmetic was only one of many reasons why the dramatic ice shrinkage reported in 2007 caused such widespread excitement. An American geological survey had recently alerted us to the fact that something like a quarter of the world’s as yet unexploited reserves of natural gas and oil – control of which would be an immense strategic prize – were probably locked up in the arctic basin. The region had also been identified as one of the first places where the effects of global warming were being felt – indeed more than that, it served as an ‘amplifier’ of those effects.

Although the 2007 retreat did prompt some startlingly early predictions of an ice-free summer – one suggested it might happen by 2013 – scientists now seem more inclined to hedge their bets. The downward trend in ice cover and thickness is clear, and it might well accelerate, but everyone accepts that individual years and individual areas – like the North-West Passage – may buck the trend. Russian prognoses in particular often include a warning from ‘some experts’ that the warming process is cyclical because – if for no other reason – that is their experience over long years of struggling with the North-East Passage. And the unusual weather patterns of the 2009–10 winter seemed to bear that out.

Nor is the North Pole going to be the setting for a new kind of Cold War – much as it might make for an easy headline. While it is true that the politics of warfare are often wildly unpredictable (Until Bush and Blair got together in the aftermath of 9/11, for example, who could have predicted that Britain would rapidly be drawn into two long, brutal and debilitating wars?) there are solid reasons why the main players in the arctic arena should avoid confrontation.

There are admittedly numerous conflicts of interest, not excluding close allies like Canada and the USA, who have radically different views on the legal status of the North-West Passage and are in dispute over their shared continental shelf. There has even been some gentle sabre rattling as Canada asserts its sovereignty and Russia rebuilds its naval strength. But this does not mean they are looking for trouble. Moscow’s immediate overriding priority must surely be to strengthen its economy, whether by reforming its ‘primitive’ centralised structure, as President Medvedev appears to advocate, or by simply exploiting its abundant natural resources.

Either way, the most obvious new source of economic prosperity is in the gas, oil and rare minerals hidden beneath the Arctic. Finding, extracting and selling them at a profit is a lengthy process, measured not just in years but in decades. It can only be achieved from a reasonably stable platform of international technical, legal and financial co-operation – international oil companies want to know where they are going to pay their taxes. The Kremlin surely knows this, even if Chilingarov, the Russian explorer who planted a Russian flag on the arctic seabed in 2007, does not. And that suggests that expensively suited lawyers, rather than men in uniform, will be in the front line of any arctic conflict.

In 2009, the Arctic Council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) tried to make sense of the future by charting a quadrant of possible scenarios, with one axis measuring the extent of trade in the region’s resources and the other the extent to which it will be governed by stable rules of conduct. If economic demand were high and governance merely responded ad hoc to events, the stage would be set for a ‘race’ to grab a share of the spoils, whereas stable rules-based governance would allow healthy development while showing concern for the Arctic’s indigenous cultures and vulnerable ecosystems. Low demand could lead to a murky, unstable and underdeveloped future or, given the right controls, to gradual development with extensive room for environmental protection, including possible ‘no-shipping zones’.

A simpler approach is to consider what events might inhibit or foster progress towards what I take to be a widely agreed objective – orderly exploitation of the region’s economic resources, involving heavy reliance on marine transport, without doing further damage to its indigenous communities or soiling its pristine physical environment.

There are two accidents waiting to happen – a major offshore oil spill and a serious emergency involving a passenger ship – which, while not neutralising the powerful forces propelling the Arctic’s development, might nevertheless shape its course.

A mass of black oil staining the ice – catching more public attention than the 2006 Alaskan pipeline leak – would challenge industrial claims to have learned the lessons of past experience. Response mechanisms developed in anticipation of fresh offshore operations would be put to the test. If the spill involved a ship, as opposed to a pipeline or a drilling rig, it might also prod the maritime authorities into filling gaps in the regulatory barriers painstakingly erected to prevent some ill-equipped ‘rust bucket’ entering the vulnerable arctic zone – uniform standards of construction, inspection and training, with mandatory ship reporting along Canadian and Russian lines and so on.

Television and film of oiled seabirds and blackened rocks have made us all too familiar with the devastation a ruptured Torrey Canyon or Amoco Cadiz can cause. But those casualties did at least occur on coasts exposed to pounding, cleansing Atlantic breakers. A combination of oil and ice presents even greater problems. The oil will lie on top – virtually impossible to collect and difficult to burn – or be trapped beneath, where its presence, perhaps leaking from a damaged pipeline, might not even be detected until the ice thaws and disperses.

The maritime community is of course well aware of the threat. Emergency training exercises have been organized – for example, at the new Varandey offshore terminal in the Barents Sea, where tankers now load surrounded by ice. A multinational exercise involving a simulated collision between a shuttle tanker and a vast storage vessel – one of an annual series jointly staged by Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden – was held at Murmansk in 2009.

However, there is an old military adage that no plan survives contact with reality. And even if in this case practice makes perfect, as one obviously hopes, the real event would come as a shock, with widespread political fallout. PR departments would be working overtime. This time it could be pictures of an oiled polar bear on our television screens, ramming home the message that oil and ice do not mix.

A serious emergency involving a big cruise liner carrying thousands of mainly elderly passengers would also give the system a salutary jolt. Dozens of passenger vessels nowadays head north each summer. Some of them are icebreakers, with a few adventurous customers on board. Others are large conventional cruise ships diverted from their usual Caribbean haunts to take a look at polar bears and calving icebergs. No study of the Arctic’s maritime future ends without a warning that search and rescue facilities are few and far between (because until now there has been no shipping traffic to justify the cost of dedicated aircraft, tugs and so on) and that these waters hold special dangers, however much care is taken.

Setting such anxieties aside, one can list perhaps ten factors that will determine how far and how fast the arctic maritime scene is going to change:

  • The price of oil and gas, notably volatile of late, is an important determinant because the Arctic’s reserves will always be an expensive option. For large parts of the year, this will remain a dreadful place to work – bitterly cold, dark and stormy. That inevitably impacts on the costs of exploration, extraction and transport when compared with the Middle East, America or wherever else. If it can be avoided, it will be.
  • While physical conditions are prohibitive right across the Arctic, activity in the Canadian and Alaskan sectors is particularly subject to political argument over the rights of indigenous communities and the need to protect their vulnerable environment from the demands of our industrialised appetites. Here is a clash between Sarah Palin’s "Drill, baby, drill" mentality and those who believe a wilderness like the US Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has its own value, and should remain sacrosanct. At what point – if at all – should local people be expected to stop hunting whales or caribou, and consign themselves to a company job? And if the hunting stops, do the whales then lose the limited protection they currently enjoy? Do they too have rights?
  • Further exploration in this region, especially if it takes place offshore, raises another question directly impacting on maritime activity. Will retreating ice prompt a reversal of the strategic decision represented by the costly construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s, so as to allow the use of oil and gas tankers? The outcome will depend on production volumes and geography as well as the possibility of a major oil spill, but this issue will surely be revisited by the accountants.
  • The legal title to all that potential wealth buried beneath the arctic basin has yet to be finally established. As explained earlier, there is a cat’s cradle of overlapping claims under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). When the 2014 deadline for the last of the currently scheduled bids arrives, the legal fur will no doubt fly. But since, as of now, no US administration has yet managed to persuade Congress to ratify the UN treaty (even though it would allow Washington to lay claim to 45,000 square miles of continental shelf), it could be many years beyond that before the final boundaries are drawn.
  • While demand for energy drives shipping within the arctic zone – the Shtokman gas field alone is expected to keep 30 ships in business – transit traffic, such as it is, will be determined by how world trading patterns settle down after the current recession. More imponderables, in other words, though it will certainly take a lot to persuade those big container ships to change their routine.
  • The future of the Russian economy is particularly obscure, because it depends so much on political rivalries yet to be resolved – and barely understood by outsiders. And the Middle East, the predominant source of our present oil supplies, is of course horrendously unstable. In the past, this led to lengthy closure of the Suez Canal as British, Egyptian and Israeli troops fought over it, though the chances of its doing the arctic routes that kind of favor in the foreseeable future are remote. For the moment the desert waterway remains, along with Panama, merely the yardstick against which the theoretical savings of an arctic transit are measured.
  • Beluga’s pioneering voyages suggest it may soon be more than a theoretical exercise. Ship owners may, at least occasionally, com- pare the level of canal tolls with the fees charged for hiring an icebreaker before deciding whether to use the Northern Sea Route. However, many other things must first be resolved.
  • Most fundamental, of course, is how soon the Arctic Ocean’s ice-free summer actually arrives. You can still take your pick from forecasts ranging across much of the coming century, but I would not be writing this if I did not myself believe the trend is clear, and likely to be permanent.
  • Almost equally important is the way the ice disperses, and the weather that accompanies its break-up. Assuming Canadians are right that extremely variable ice conditions in the North-West Passage mean it will be the last route to open as a reliable international waterway, transit shipping will for years be at the mercy of Russian bureaucracy and Russian charts. Unless, that is, the central ice pack rapidly retreats to reveal a deep-water Trans-Polar Route straight across the central ocean from the Greenland Sea to the Bering Strait, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In which case, perhaps navigators can just set the ‘satnav’ and go.
  • Yet this still begs the question of what an ‘open’ sea lane means in these extreme latitudes. How many dangerous chunks of ice will still be drifting around? How much strengthening will your ship require? At what point will it be worth building a specialized, ice-hardened arctic cruise ship? What speeds can safely be maintained and schedules guaranteed? The skippers of refrigerated gas tankers, for example, like to crack on at high speed to reduce the amount of cargo boiled off in transit – and it seems there will soon be a lot of these ships loading in the Arctic.

And what will the weather be like? When even the familiar patterns that dictate Britain’s weather occasionally defeat the country's national weather service, simulating what may happen in a radically new arctic scenario is not at all easy. From a sailor’s point of view, the outlook is discouraging.

One recent study reported from Norway predicted "large increases in the potential for extreme weather events" right around the rim of the arctic basin as the ice cover shrinks. While calm conditions often prevail above the ice cap itself, the seas around it are prone to phenomena known as "polar lows" and "arctic fronts." Cold air leaving the ice can be lifted into an explosive storm.

Another warning came from Alexander Frolov of the Russian state weather forecasting organisation Rosgidromet. His concern was that drifting icebergs and more frequent ice storms could threaten development of the Shtokman offshore gas field in the Barents Sea, which unlike Norway’s amazingly automated Snohvit field is expected to use floating platforms.

Then there is fog, already a persistent problem for arctic navigators. Nothing scientific here – just my own hunch based on the basic fact that fog forms when air cools below its ‘dew point’ and sheds its moisture (which is why we have to de-mist a cold windscreen when starting the car on a winter’s morning). There is plenty of scope for this phenomenon as the boundary between cold ice and warm sea shifts. So perhaps the polar region’s typically poor visibility will get even worse as the arctic routes make their seasonal transition.

In any case, satellite navigation using the global positioning system is going to be at a premium. GPS is based on a network of US military satellites (rival Russian and European networks are under development) which can be constantly interrogated to give a position on the globe accurate to within a few meters. It was in use at sea before it appeared in cars as a route finder, and is now integrated with electronic charts, and used to send out automated distress calls. The technology is considered so reliable you could legally take a ship to sea without any paper charts on board – a fact that still shocks me. Once full, accurate coverage is available, GPS will be absolutely invaluable in a region where traditional navigational marks are scarce and radar is sometimes suspect.

Underlying all this are the desperate uncertainties of global warming, where public debate takes in everything from crude conspiracy theory to serious scientific explanations which nevertheless assign quite different values to factors such as human-made carbon dioxide or cyclical solar activity. Meanwhile the climate-change skeptics are still in full cry. So in a discussion like this, one needs to put one’s cards on the table.

From my layman’s perspective, there is thoroughly convincing evidence that we are heading for a critically dangerous temperature rise of several degrees centigrade by the end of the century unless governments take drastic action. I am told there is a mathematical concept known as "catastrophe theory" describing the way normal, apparently stable processes suddenly run out of control. It seems to me our climate is deeply prone to that. We could indeed be on the brink of a disastrous tipping point, and I fear our essentially short-term systems of government are ill-equipped to avert it.

Since none of this is certain, discussion of what it means for the Arctic can be no more than a plausible hypothesis; the only certainty is uncertainty. Yet the arctic basin is still the one to watch – the amplifier of climate change and the source of so much hidden wealth, disputed legally even if it never results in armed conflict. Russia, if she plays her cards right, will be among the main beneficiaries; arctic wildlife, and the indigenous communities still dependent on it, will be among the losers.

There will certainly be a big surge in maritime activity – it has already begun – mainly associated with the exploitation of oil, gas and minerals within the region, plus polar tourism. Only gradually, as ‘ice blink’ is replaced by a ‘water sky’, will ships in transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific begin to head north. The maritime tipping point may well arrive when it becomes profitable to operate an arctic container shuttle between regional hubs in, say, Iceland and Japan, using ice- strengthened, purpose-built ships capable of independent operation.

If the ghosts of Barents, Franklin, Nansen and the rest of history's great arctic explorers are watching, they must by now be wondering whether all that hardship and sacrifice was worthwhile.

© 2011 by David Fairhall from "Cold Front." Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.

David Fairhall

David Fairhall was the Guardian's Defence Correspondent throughout much of the Cold War and has written extensively on maritime subjects. His previous books include "Russia Looks to the Sea" (1971), "Black Tide Rising: the Wreck of the Amoco Cadiz" (with Philip Jordan, 1980) and "Common Ground: the Story of Greenham" (I.B.Tauris, 2006).

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