by Patricia Howell

The fragile Arctic environment is under threat from both climate change and a new oil rush at the top of the world. Recent scientific data has shown that the rate of melting of the summer sea-ice is significantly greater than originally predicted. For example, ten years ago in regions north of Canada and Greenland there was regularly 5 to 6 metres thickness of ice in the summer but levels have now dropped to 1 to 3 metres. In just a few years the Arctic Ocean could be free of ice in the summer, resulting in a rush to exploit its fish stocks, oil and mineral reserves, and new shipping routes.

As climate change melts the Arctic ice, oil companies are moving in to drill for the fossil fuels, oil and natural gas, that caused the melt in the first place by raising carbon dioxide emissions. Above the Arctic Circle, freezing temperatures, a narrow drilling window and a remote location mean that an oil spill would be almost impossible to deal with. It's a catastrophe waiting to happen. Moreover, as ice and snow recede from the land mass of places such as north Greenland, these areas become more accessible to mineral prospectors who are searching for new supplies of rare earths such as neodymium and dysprosium to feed the insatiable demands of the global electronics industry.

Last summer I travelled from Spitzbergen, north of Norway, to eastern Greenland and saw first hand evidence for the melting summer ice: as we approached the Greenland coast we encountered a vast floating mass of ice floes moving south, coming from the break up of ice sheets to the north. Our Russian captain Yuri was amazed to see so much ice floating south in August.

The rapidly changing environment has drastic implications for the populations of animals and humans who inhabit these wild northern places. The plight of the polar bear has been well documented as it loses the spring ice floes from which it can hunt seals. The Inuit also find seals difficult to hunt and are seeking new economic opportunities. Cruise ships are one possibility, or day trippers from Iceland. However, the potential for new jobs in mining and oil is attractive to the young Inuit.

The future remains uncertain. Will the loss of Arctic ice lead to further instabilities in the Jet Stream and more unsettled and extreme weather in northern Europe? Will there be catastrophic oil spills? Will the Inuit find a new life support system from mining companies or tourism? Will European governments or global oil and mining companies control this future? Earlier this year member nations of the – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the US – met to try to set some minimum rules to protect the region against pollution. The fact that such considerations are only now taking place reveals a dangerous lack of urgency among politicians in their reactions to the vast changes that are sweeping our planet.

The Arctic is too precious to be left unprotected.

September 2012