Arctic infrastructure cannot keep pace
The Russian response to Greenpeace’s protest at the Arctic Prirazlomnoye oil rig made it clear to a lot of people that in spite of environmental concerns, the commercialization of the region is proceeding “full speed ahead”and enjoying top political priority. The controversial rig went into production at the end of the last year. Shipping has also increased dramatically in Arctic waters in the last few years, with international freight companies using the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast to transport gas and other commodities. This reduces the distance between Shanghai and Hamburg by around 6,400 kilometers, compared with the usual route via the Suez Canal. Tourism is also on the up, with an increasing number of cruise ships making their way through Arctic waters during the summer months. What happens if one of these ships sinks? When the Costa Concordia cruise ship hit rocks off the italian island of Giglio in January 2012 and tipped onto its side, the risks of this kind of tourism became graphically clear. The thought of something like that happening with an iceberg in the remote regions around Spitsbergen or Greenland doesn’t bear thinking about. But that, of course, is exactly what we have to do with a view to minimising risks for people and the environment.
The Arctic Institute Center for Circumpolar Security Studies has examined existing infrastructure in the six Arctic coastal states (USA, Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Russia). I attended a workshop as a side-event to the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso in January, where the initial results were presented. They should really set the alarm bells ringing.
Kathrin Keil from the IASS Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, looked at developments in the oil and gas sector. She warned that the unpredictability and variability of weather and ice conditions would severely limit the options for responding to an oil accident in the region. The ice cover in May can be between 30 and 90 percent, she explained.
The ice-free period can be as short as one month or as long as nine. To date, there is no adequate technology available to successfully deal with the results of an oil spill in Arctic waters. The Institute also says the ‘Oil Spill Response Plan’ provided by Gazprom for the Prirazlomnoye rig lacks detail. The rig is located close to several nature reserves and Kail warns that these areas would be extremely vulnerable if oil or fuel were to spill. She argues for the tightest possible safety regulations, given that this is the first offshore oil platform to go into operation in the Arctic.
Not enough icebreakers
The existing infrastructure is also inadequate for the increase in Arctic shipping, says Malte Humpert, Executive Director of the Arctic Institute. He says the icebreaker fleet is not big enough to support the growing number of vessels sailing through Arctic regions.
The increase in the number of cruise boats, especially near the Norwegian Spitsbergen archipelago and off the west coast of Greenland, is another cause for concern. If a cruise ship carrying 3,000 people were to collide with an iceberg near the popular tourist town Ilulissat, the existing search and rescue capacity would not be sufficient to cope. The available planes, helicopters and ships would be too few and take too long to reach the accident site, says Arctic Institute’s Marc Jacobsen.
With just 4,500 residents, Ilulissat would be unable to provide adequate medical treatment or shelter for people affected by the crash. Oil and other toxic chemicals dumped by the damaged vessel would be very difficult to clean-up. There is also a shortage of satellite, internet and mobile phone connections, meaning communication would be limited.
Politicians are prepared to take risks
The risks of the increasing commercialization of the Arctic are high on the priority of the region’s politicians, says Magnus Johannesson, Director of the Permanent Secretariat of the Arctic Council . In an interview at his office in Tromsø he stressed to me the importance of ongoing negotiations aimed at introducing a ‘Polar Code’ to regulate Arctic shipping. It is set to come into effect in 2016. Johannesson also referred to the SAREX exercises conducted in 2013. These simulated a shipping accident to test search and rescue capacity. But Marc Jacobsen from the Arctic Institute says the exercise was too small in scale to provide a realistic picture of readiness. There were only 250 people on the vessel used in the mock accident.
“I think everyone is aware that there could be better infrastructure, but these are the first steps,” Johannesson told me . “The Arctic states are very aware of that and doing their best to speed this up”.
Disaster in the Arctic: a possibility
Anton Vasiliev, Russia’s ambassador to the Arctic Council, assumes his country will have proper infrastructure in place along the Northern Sea Route within the next few years. Iceland’s Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson also told me in an interview in Tromso he was confident that security and response infrastructure would be improved.
“In the end we are always worried about the ocean around Iceland, so the environment and security matter. The possibility of a disaster in the Arctic is why we are paying so much attention to the region,” he told me. “The attention to the economic potential of the Arctic is growing fast. But I don’t think it is moving so fast that we cannot manage it.”
But environmental groups are increasingly concerned about commerical activity in the Arctic. I noticed a distinct lack of ngo participation at the Arctic Frontiers event this year. The price of conference attendance seeems to be one factor that reduces the number of ngo people attending. On the official programme, it seems only one ngo is officially invited to speak each year. This year, it was WWF’s turn, and Nina Jensen the CEO was on one of the panels. I interviewed her in Tromso and she told me: “With the increasing ship traffic, there is a higher risk of accidents and pollution that will impact both humans and wildlife to a very serious extent. We do not know enough about the marine environment to be able to avoid serious impacts. We do not have adequate regulations in place, and there is no sufficient oil spill preparedness.” While she welcomes the Polar Code, she stresses it is only a first step, and fails to tackle issues such as black carbon pollution, invasive species and the use of heavy fuel oil.
She sees a huge discrepancy between the political rhetoric, with politicians all paying lip service to the need for a better infrastructure to protect the fragile Arctic environment, but taking little action to make this happen in time.
We also talked about the huge paradox that is Arctic oil drilling. Climate change is making it possible – and burning oil, in turn, is creating the emissions which cause climate change. The world needs to get away from fossil fuel, says Jensen. The future of the Arctic has to be renewable.
My article on this is on the DW website: Are we prepared for a catastrophe in the Arctic?
DateFebruary 10, 2014 | 10:13 am
Greenland glacier at record speed
I have been working on a story about whether the Arctic infrastructure would be able to cope with a shipping or oil spill accident, which is increasingly likely to occur as development speeds ahead. During the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, I attended an interesting workshop on the topic, where the organisers, the Arctic Institute Center for Circumpolar Security Studies, came to what their experts describe as “worrisome” conclusions. Malte Humpert, Kathrin Keil and Marc Jacobsen presented three incident scenarios involving shipping and oil exploration in the Arctic. Jacobsen’s scenario involved a giant cruise boat with 3000 people on board hitting an iceberg off the West Greenland Coast, near Ilulissat.
In 2009 I was in Ilulissat, working on radio features on climate change in Greenland. This is the Greenland of the tourist brochures, with a constantly changing panorama of icebergs floating past your hotel window – or porthole if you are on a ship. While I was there, the fragility of that beautiful glacier ice was brought home to me.
The Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, also still known by its Danish name “Jakobshavn Isbrae”, is the fastest flowing glacier in Greenland (or Antarctica, these two major ice sources being of key importance to global sea level). The icebergs which create the spectacle floating past the brightly coloured houses of Ilulissat, are breaking off from the glacier. Beautiful to look at, extremely worrying if you think about the background. Back in 2009, scientists were already telling me the glacier was speeding up. Now the latest research published in The Cryosphere (the journal of the European Geosciences Union) confirms that the summer flow of the ice mass has reached a record speed. The scientists, from the University of Washington in Seattle and the German Aerospace Center DLR, say the speeding up in 2013 was 30 to 50 percent higher than previous summers. The scientists analysed satellite images taken every 11 days from early 2009 to spring 2013. Satellite technology plays a key role in observing the ice. Two German radar satellites TerraSAR-X und TanDEM-X provide high resolution data that facilitates precise calculations, according to DLR. One of the authors, Dana Floricioiu from the DLR Earth Observation Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, told journalists it had been striking to see how much the glacier was changing within a very short time.
The researchers found that the glacier’s average speed peaked at 46 metres per day during the summer of 2012. This is the fastest ever recorded for a glacier in Greenland or Antarctica. The big surges take place in summer, but the researchers say the average annual speed of the glacier over the last two years is almost three times what was measured in the 1990s. It is retreating by around 17 kilometres per year. The scientists say these speeds were achieved “as the glacier terminus appears to have retreated to the bottom of an over-deepened basin with a depth of around 1300 m below sea level. The terminus is likely to reach the deepest section of the trough within a few decades, after which it could rapidly retreat to the shallower regions some 50 km farther upstream, potentially by the end of this century”.
The huge volume of ice going into the sea from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier is already influencing sea level. The glacier drains around 6 percent of the massive Greenland ice sheet Scientists estimate it added about 1 millimetre to global sea levels from 2000 to 2010. The increased speed of the discharge will exacerbate this further.Badnews for people in low-lying coastal areas around the globe. And this is not the only Greenland glacier melting increasingly.
Coming back to the subject of disaster-preparedness – this glacier is thought to be the source of the iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912. The Arctic Institute’s scenario indicates that an accident like the “Costa Concordia”, which happened in an easily accessible region with no ice or dangerous weather conditions, would have devastating consequences if it happened, say, off the coast of Ilulissat. Search and rescue, accommodation and medical treatment, lack of transport facilities, poor communications infrastructure, no adequate oil spill response technology for icy waters…. food for thought for companies looking to profit from the changing climate of the Arctic – and the governments that should be responsible for protecting humans, wildlife and that beautiful but fragile Arctic ecosystem.
DateFebruary 6, 2014 | 12:43 pm
Why high suicide rates in Arctic Russia?
Back at DW headquarters in Bonn after returning from Arctic Frontiers in Tromso at the weekend, I am sorting out notes and interviews with a wide range of experts on Arctic issues from all over the world.
One interview I would like to share with you here on the Ice Blog is a talk I had with Dr Yuri Sumarokov from the Northern State Medical University in Archangelsk in north-west Russia. It is the northernmost medical school in Russia and has a special focus on research into Arctic medicine and issues affecting the health of people in the Arctic.
People in the Arctic regions of Russia have a much higher suicide rate than in other parts of the country. The rate is higher again amongst indigenous people. Sumarakov, himself a medical doctor, shared some insights into the ongoing research with me. The topic is not new and certainly not limited to Russia. It seems though to be a topic that is not talked about enough, especially amongst politicians – and in the media. So let’s make a start. Please have a listen. There is plenty of food for thought and I for one feel motivated to find out a little more:
DateJanuary 28, 2014 | 1:47 pm
Kids, POPS and Arctic Science
Norway, believe it or not, is having problems recruiting scientists and qualified personnel for the Arctic. The generous education system attracts plenty of foreign students, it seems. But there is a lack of Norwegian PhD students. Not that the country doesn’t welcome foreign students, but understandably they would like to have people who stay on in the Norwegian Arctic as well as those who take their qualifications back home to wherever. For that reason, the Arctic Frontiers conference and APECS, the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists decided to “start them young” and invited pupils from two local schools to an Arctic science workshop in the planetarium of the Tromso Science Centre, the country’s northernmost. As I arrived, I found myself overtaken by youngsters rushing down to have a look at the gadgetry and a hands-on shot at scientific experiments. This is the kind of place that interests young people in the workings of nature and technology.
Kirsten and Ida talked to me (in English, great language skills) about their project. They had made a poster of the type displayed at scientific conferences. Their subject: Persistant Organic Pollutants, POPs. They told me the increasing concentration of these up here in the remote Arctic environment is something that worries them.
The posters are entered in a competion, with awards and attendance at next year’s big Arctic conference event awaiting the winners. The girls were reserving judgement about whether Arctic science would be their future careers. But they were willing to give it due consideration and looking forward to the “science show” at the planetarium. Let’s see which pupils turn up here again next year!
Centre Director Tove Marienborg demonstrates the energy involved in using the “Spark” or kick-sled.
DateJanuary 24, 2014 | 12:20 pm
Climate Change: Arctic in denial?
If there is one place you would imagine people would have to be conscious of climate change, it would be the Arctic, where the temperature is rising around twice as fast as the global average. As I mentioned in the Ice Blog yesterday and in my article on dw.de from here in Tromsö, changes to the sea ice and temperature are altering life rapidly and visibly for people in the high north. So I was intrigued by a side-event here at Arctic Frontiers, which made it clear that this does not necessarily mean people are aware of climate change and what it involves – at least not consciously or actively.
“How to Create a Climate for Change” was the subject of the workshop organised by UArctic, the University of the Arctic. (That is not the same as Tromsö University, which is called Norway’s Arctic University. UArctic is a cooperative network of northern universities and other educational institutions.)
The workshop was looking at awareness of climate change in Norway and other Arctic regions. Kari Marie Norgaard is Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon in the USA. She spent ten months researching in Bygdaby,a community in northern Norway and told us she had actually monitored an “incredible disconnect between the moral, social, and environmental crisis of climate change and people not realising it is happening.”
This is not limited to the Arctic, although it seems particularly striking in an area undergoing such major changes. There seems to be a widespread paradox in that climate change is leading to dramatic alterations to ecology systems and significant social consequences, but that there is no widespread sense of a need for urgent action.
This is not limited to the Arctic, although it seems particularly striking in an area undergoing such major changes. There seems to be a widespread paradox in that climate change is leading to dramatic alterations to ecology systems and significant social consequences, but that there is no widespread sense of a need for urgent action. Humans, says Norgaard, are “not getting it”. They are carrying on regardless, acting as if nothing were happening.
Denial but not climate scepticism
She speaks of “denial”, but not in the sense that people do not accept that climate change is happening. Norgaard told me she has come under a lot of pressure from the extreme right in the USA, who do not understand her distinction. Her hypothesis is that we know climate change is happening just as we know violence, rape or massacres happen. But we do not perceive it as psychologically disturbing or carrying a moral imperative to act. Norgaard is interested in how and why people collectively resist information about climate change. She focuses on Norway rather than her home country USA because this is a country with a high rate of newspaper readership, high levels of political participation,and where climate change is more visible in the northern region, and people know it is happening.
But in spite of the fact that Bygdaby is highly dependent on farming and tourism, where the climate is important, the fact that the winter had been warm, the snow was two months late and artificial snow had to be used for skiing, did not result in a heightened interest in climate change. In fact, she says, it was invisible in social or political life. One of her conclusions is that people want to protect themselves to some extent and so prefer to live as if climate change was not happening. Her theory is that people don’t want to feel guilty about their lifestyle and also try to avoid fear of the future and feeling helpless.
The greatest communication failure of all time?
Althouth Norgaard did her research in Norway, she says the findings apply equally elsewhere, including the USA, where regions are already experiencing climate impacts with economic consequences, but people don’t want to accept that it could have something to do with their lifestyle and require unpleasant action.
Per Espen Stoknes is Associate Professor at the Center for Climate Strategy of the Norwegian Business Institute NBI. He says surveys going back to 1989 in Norway show a decrease in people’s concern about the greenhouse effect and climate change .Only
4 in 10 see it as a problem and only 8% see it as being of importance. Espen stresses this is not because of a lack of knowledge. In fact, he thinks the better the facts get, the less people care.
Stoknes came up with an interesting figure. Apparently the public has the impression only 55% of climate scientists agree on global warming. In realty, it is 97%.Getting the message about climate change across is the ““Greatest communication failure of all time”, says Stoknes.
Who’s to blame?
Some of the responsibility lies with the scientists in his view. He says scientists need to lecture people less and discuss more. Another problem is that people tend to think of climate as being very distant in time and space. An IPCC estimate for 2100 seems a long way away. For people outside the Arctic, melting sea ice also seems geographically very remote. The same applies to places like Bangladesh or the Maldives.
Stoknes suggestions for improving the situation are not new. But evidently, the message has not got across – or the suggestions proved not effective. He says the media should have less gloom and doom and present more positive stories and examples of practicable action. If only it were that simple.
I remember numerous heated discussions on this topic at a Global Media Forum on Climate Change and the Media in Bonn in 2010, and atvarious other events I was involved in. Communicating climate change in a way that will make people take action in their everyday lives and put pressure on governments to do the same, remains a priority and a challenge.
One idea Stoknes has strikes me as being useful. He stresses the power of social norms to change behaviour, and suggests campaigns that make people compete with their peers – neighbours, other towns, friends, relatives, for being climate-conscious, can be effective. He talked about the success of an app where people can record and compare their energy saving.
Another possibility is to make “greener” options the default, something I was talking further about with some US colleagues today. If the normal way a printer works is to use both sides of the paper, for instance, people will do that. Not though if they have to change a setting
Plenty of food for thought here. The psychological and social dimensions of climate change awareness clearly deserve more consideration.
DateJanuary 23, 2014 | 7:38 pm
TagsArctic, Arctic Frontiers, Climate, Climate psychology, Media, Norgaard, Norway, Stoknes, UArctic, USA, Warming