The Arctic Ice Meltdown of 2012: What You Need to Know

Here’s what’s going on: chunks of glaciers several times the size of Manhattan are ripping free from Greenland; what can change from solid to liquid in the Arctic is rapidly doing so; 2012 is on track to become the hottest year ever in the lower 48. Peter Wadhams, Cambridge University professor of ocean physics, is convinced the summer Arctic ice sheet will be gone by 2016, and all of this is just the beginning. As the ice melts, it opens up the opportunity for cheaper oil, gas and mineral extraction. In anticipation, international companies and even nation-states are racing to get in on the action. Some say environmentalists shouldn’t be sounding the apocalypse alarms. Others argue that unless something changes quick, we’re doomed.

The Back Story
This summer, in a four-day period beginning on July 8, an estimated 97% of Greenland’s interior surface ice sheet melted. This doesn’t mean the entire ice sheet vanished, as some have thought. In some places it’s as deep as two miles. It’s common for parts of the surface ice to go through periods of mild melting during summer months, but nothing like what occurred during those four days. In a year of record-breaking climate changes, it seemed to underscore growing concerns of accelerating, widespread warming.

One week later, NASA reported that a chunk of glacier twice the size of Manhattan broke off of Greenland and morphed into an iceberg, and on September 16, the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) reported that Arctic sea ice has shrunk to its smallest level ever recorded. In the 1970s, ice would cover around 8 million square kilometers during a typical summer. This summer it fell to 3.41 million square kilometers. According to the New York Times, the Arctic is warming faster than other parts of the planet, with the average yearly temperature in northwestern Greenland rising by 4.5 degrees in the past 15 years. By the end of the century, scientists are predicting the number could increase to as high as 21 degrees.

“Every year may not be a record breaker; but it’s something close to the record,” says Professor Marco Tedesco, referring to recent climate trends.  Tedesco is a NASA and National Science Foundation sponsored researcher studying the Arctic phenomenon. “The Arctic [is] an amplifying factor of warmer temperatures around the globe.”

Despite this, Tedesco states that occurrences such as Greenland’s surface melt are extraordinary but not unprecedented (he’s studied ice scores that prove it) and it’s too early to jump to conclusions about the implications for global warming. Others, like Peter Wadhams, fear the time for idle monitoring is over.

Enter the “Alarmists”
Peter Wadhams is everything you would expect of a professor from the UK. With a stout frame and gray-white hair and beard, he looks a bit like Sean Connery when he played the reclusive writer in Finding Forrester. For the past forty years, Wadhams has been venturing to the Arctic in British naval submarines to record polar ice thickness. Right from the start, he noticed significant thinning and even then, claimed that Arctic ice will vanish before 2016. His warnings went mostly ignored. Detractors and other Arctic scientists called him an “alarmist,” that is, until this year when, according to Wadhams, most followed suit after witnessing a summer of unprecedented climate weirdness.

“At the [current] rate of thinning,” says Wadhams, “you’ll get to where the winter growth of ice is going to be offset by the summer melt, to the point where the whole ice cover is vulnerable to collapse.”

This summer, the ice loss was so significant that it measured at only 30% of its volume in the 80s. The retreat of sea ice has given a boost to the warming of the global environment; it has increased the absorption of energy by the open water surface and has fueled methane emissions from the melting of offshore permafrost. The obvious long-term solution would be the reduction of carbon emissions, but Wadhams believes the time for that has passed.

He thinks the Arctic ice melt “could be so rapidly disastrous that we need to start thinking about other technical ways to make an impact.” As a possible solution, or at least something to investigate rigorously, Wadhams is reluctantly suggesting geo-engineering, techniques that include reflecting incoming solar energy by whitening clouds with injections of water vapor, or by dispersing aerosols in the upper atmosphere to make up for the loss of energy reflection from disappearing ice. There’s a catch. Geo-engineering has a bad name – and for good reason. Wadhams says, “Scientists are rightfully suspicious, having screwed up the planet through technology, to think any technical fix is likely to do more harm than good.”

With no immediate solution on the horizon, the Arctic continues to warm, melting ice sheets that previously prevented extractive industries from operating in the region. With ice on the way out, mining operations and oil companies are on the way in.

Big Oil & Big Money
Drilling for oil in the Arctic has always been a desire, as the region is said to contain as much as 22% of the world’s hydrocarbons, but it’s also been a puzzle. Most of it is in deeper waters, often under thick layers of ice, where current offshore drilling techniques aren’t realistic. The problem has always been that in the arctic, a drill ship is required because the water is  too deep to manage a bottom-mounted platform. But a drill operation is unlikely when you have heavy ice cover at the surface.

“That’s easier now because the ice cover is lighter or non-existent,” says Wadhams. “You can have an operation in the summer, and the new methods of drilling are simply to have a drill ship with ice breakers circling around it all the time.”

It seems an easy fix, but a problem remains. If you’re drilling and extracting oil and you have a blowout at the end of summer season, then you might have an oil leak being emitted throughout winter. When drill ships abandon the Arctic as the winter ice arrives, the opportunity to stop a leak is lost.

According to Wadhams, when oil is emitted under the ice, it gets encapsulated and carried around the Arctic by moving ice flows. When summer comes and that ice melts, you have a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Of the many oil consortiums – including companies such as BP, Conoco Phillips, Exxon-Rosneft, Gazprom, Shell and many others – either seeking or in possession of concessions in the Arctic, only Shell has made “realistic” plans to control oil leaks in the Arctic. They’ve designed a blowout capping system specific to drilling conditions of the Arctic and have promised to stop drilling early enough in the season so that if a blowout does occur, it can be contained before winter arrives. Their word and technological advancements are like anything though, susceptible to disarray. As of September 24, $4.5 billion-and-counting and six years later, after facing plaguing mechanical problems, nearly running a drilling rig ashore and almost getting hit by an ice flow the size of Manhattan in its attempt to tap Arctic Ocean oil, Shell’s plans to drill have been thwarted until next summer, pending a safety review. Environmentalists see the delay as further evidence that oil companies, including Shell, should leave the region in its pristine nature.

The Great Land Grab
Oil companies aren’t the only ones seeking a slice. The world’s superpowers are now haggling over territory and jockeying for political and economic influence in the Arctic, a place where specific boundaries were previously of minor concern. China is becoming increasingly aggressive in its desire to get involved. Russia, Canada, and Denmark via Greenland, are all claiming the Lomonosov Ridge as their territory. According to the New York Times, the disputes will likely be settled through negotiations, yet as a precaution, Arctic nations and NATO have been advancing military capabilities in the region.

According to Wadhams, “What you are finding is that previously inoffensive nations have suddenly become quite aggressive about their rights in the Arctic.”

Even when climate change issues can’t become more obvious, politicians from around the world appear to prefer expanding extractive industry rather than placing significant efforts towards alternative energy development.

“Politicians can always think of [climate change] as a slow process…it’s easier not to do something and say that we’ll do something in a few years time. All the deadlines that the UN has come up with concerning reducing emissions by ten percent, twenty percent, fifty percent, [are] by 2030 or 2050.” And this is when Wadhams becomes audibly frustrated: “You name a date in the future, which is beyond the limits of the present or next government, so you don’t have to do anything at all. That’s the cowardice of politicians.”

The attempt to tap into the Arctic’s oil is being called a “race towards hidden treasure,” but one has to wonder if it’s not a race towards our own undoing. Bill McKibben, Founder of and sometimes referred to as “Big Oil’s Biggest Threat,” echoed that concern in an email with The Wenger Blog.

“It’s hard to imagine anything more ironic than melting the Arctic and then – with the ice out of the way – racing to drill for more oil.”

By Bryan Schatz