Arctic development: I’ll have that with ice, please

Ah, summertime—iced tea, the girls in their summer dresses, butterflies by day and lightning bugs at night, late summer evenings in moonlight, children staying up late, increased shipping in the polar seas…wait, what? Well, yes. For the fourth or fifth straight year, enough polar ice has melted so that the number of ships traversing the Northeast Passage—say, from the Bering Straits to around the northern tip of Norway, specifically from Kobe to Rotterdam—has increased. In fact, as of 30 July, some 270 vessels had received permits to make this trip. Specifically, 391 permit applications had been received by Russia’s NSR (Northern Sea Route) administration, and 52 of these were not approved. The difference in permitted approvals and the 270 is that not all ships will be doing the full route—quite a few stop off at various Russian ports. Not that there are all that many of them, but there are enough. This is up from 46 in 2012 doing the whole route, and just four in 2010.

Something transformational is happening here, at least for some. The NSR route shaves about ten days off of doing the traditional route through the Suez Canal. And it’s becoming more popular, obviously. China in particular has an interest here—its first ship just left for this route last week. Russia, which for centuries has had a foreign policy premised, in part, on a search for a permanent warm weather port, has an interest as well. Surprise, surprise, global warming is handing several ports to them at once. The fact that they’re not available year round yet doesn’t really matter—at the current rate of melting, that won’t be a problem in a couple of decades. The Russians can wait for this. Russia, of course, is a long-standing member of the Arctic Council—China only recently got observer status, but has made its polar intentions known. And that’s just one part of the world. On top of the other continent, an increasing number of ships are seeking to make the Northwest Passage a regular route—nearly 20 vessels in this case. Granted, it’s a more difficult route. But still, that’s nearly 20 more than there were a couple of years ago.

We’ve flagged this issue before. And it’s actually not as straightforward as the above implies—there’s still lots of ice, and therefore risk, in waters that are pretty far from anything like mainstream shipping routes, and where any environmental mishap (like a significant spill) is days away for any emergency cleanup operation. But still, a trend is a trend, and there’s no reason to think this will change. We certainly don’t expect the warming trend to reverse itself any time soon—certainly the shipping companies don’t, nor do the governments affected (except for the US, of course, where one of the two major political parties is still gripped by an insane global warming denialism.)

Because in addition to opening up a potentially valuable new trade route, melting arctic seas open up a lot more—mainly mineral resources in the sea bed, including lots and lots of oil and gas for development. If the statistics that industry analysts and reporters have any truth to them, we’re told that the Arctic alone (leaving aside the Antarctic) contains perhaps 30% of “the world’s undiscovered gas” and 13% of undiscovered oil. (“Undiscovered” simply means that gas and/or oil are expected to be there based on the known geology, but actual testing hasn’t been done to pinpoint the location.) And, in an often-repeated factoid, we are constantly being assured that Lloyd’s of London is estimating that investment in the Arctic “could reach $100 billion within ten years.”

Well, yes, this all seems like it might actually happen. But then there’s the methane issue, which could be significant—conceptually it’s an issue, but I suppose it depends on how development takes place. Sadly, experience tells us that it won’t proceed without some sort of large screw-up. We don’t really know how many oil spills or nuclear accidents have occurred in the past that are lost to memory and the Arctic seas. But with every environmental group paying close attention, you can be that any new screw-ups will receive at least some attention—just consider Shell’s disastrous and ultimately farcical attempts to do some test drilling in offshore Arctic waters in 2012. If the media coverage of the spills associated with the proposed Keystone Pipeline is anything to go by, there won’t be broad media coverage, but someone will at least be paying attention. And the numbers are potentially and wildly scary—as the authors of a recent paper in Nature pointed out, economic costs of methane released in Arctic areas could approach $60 trillion, yes, trillion—which would be about the size of the global economy in 2012. Is this alarmist? Probably, and hopefully. But still, methane hydrates are genuinely scary, as the authors point out:

As the amount of Arctic sea ice declines at an unprecedented rate, the thawing of offshore permafrost releases methane. A 50-gigatonne (Gt) reservoir of methane, stored in the form of hydrates, exists on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. It is likely to be emitted as the seabed warms, either steadily over 50 years or suddenly. Higher meth­ane concentrations in the atmosphere will accelerate global warming and hasten local changes in the Arctic, speeding up sea-ice retreat, reducing the reflection of solar energy and accelerating the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The ramifications will be felt far from the poles.


The methane pulse will bring forward by 15–35 years the average date at which the global mean temperature rise exceeds 2°C above pre-industrial levels — to 2035 for the business-as-usual scenario and to 2040 for the low-emissions case (see ‘Arctic methane’). This will lead to an extra $60 trillion (net pre­sent value) of mean climate-change impacts for the scenario with no mitigation, or 15% of the mean total predicted cost of climate-change impacts (about $400 trillion). In the low-emissions case, the mean net present value of global climate-change impacts is $82 trillion without the methane release; with the pulse, an extra $37 trillion, or 45% is added….

Nor will development be inexpensive. Americans, and much of the world, have gotten so used to the idea of energy being cheap that they now seem to feel it’s an inalienable right. We see this here in the UK as well—every time the cost of gas bills go up, there are cries that the government should “do something” to reduce them. But that’s not the way it should work—we’re in energy trouble, especially in the US, largely because we’ve been lulled into thinking it’s ok to not pay the full cost of energy. Instead we defer the cost of the externalities, and pretend that they don’t exist. Shale gas may be the exception, but let’s reserve judgment there for a couple of more years. About the only thing we know about those “undiscovered” reserves that the Arctic may contain is that getting the oil and gas out of there is a daunting task, and one that will cost money. Shell has spent $4.5 billion over seven years to develop its Arctic drilling infrastructure, and it still doesn’t work. And China is certainly interested in drilling as well. What their track record is on oil development I can’t say, so I suppose I should cut CNOOC and other Chinese oil companies some slack on the grounds that they haven’t screwed up yet. Strangely enough, I’m not prepared to do that.

So once again we face some questions about the massive experiment we are conducting on Planet Earth—mainly, do we want to go there? Well, that’s not exactly the question any more—we seem to be going there regardless. Next year we’ll probably see a doubling yet again of the number of ships crossing the Arctic. And I suppose that someone will derive some economic benefit from the fact that whatever it is they’re shipping from Kobe to Rotterdam will get there ten days earlier. Still, it may be a trend, but it’s not one I would want to encourage.

The above stamp, of the icebreaker “Lenin,” is one of a set of four icebreaker stamps issued by Russia in 2009. Of course, I don’t think anything is named after Lenin any more. The ship was commissioned in 1959, de-commissioned in 1989, and is now a floating museum. It was the world’s first nuclear-powered surface ship.

10 replies »

  1. So many integrated natural systems involved, tweak one and try to count to 10 before an unintended consequence pops up. A methane breakout from subliming hydrates is a horrible thought as is heavy maritime traffic in remote ecologically sensitive areas fraught with hull piercing floaters.

    Satellite Nav systems are much better now than in Exxon Valdez days but it still takes keen eyes in the crow’s nest and a sharp mind at the helm to steer obstacle courses like this. Cutting down shipping costs at great risk of disaster seems a serious gamble.

    On the lighter side it would be just dessert if we built Keystone and ramped up Gulf Coast refinery capacity just in time for the Canucks to say, “Thanks anyway, we’re going to tranship Northwest to Chinese refineries, they offered us a better deal.”

    Is it wrong to wish we had stayed the course with nuclear energy? We could have had half our power plants converted by now.

    Good think piece Wufnik, thanks!

  2. Wow. What a great piece. I’d guess that’s the real scary factor, that warming models could be conservative to the extent they are linear rather than exponential.

    • Think about this for a moment: most climate scientists are erring in the direction of “least drama” with respect to their recommendations and peer-reviewed papers.

  3. I know, that’s what worries me about the methane hydrate problem–it’s a genuine black swan prospect.

  4. Maybe we can deflect the horrors of global warming with…money? Yeah, that’s the ticket – money….We deserve to become extinct….We’re not as smart as dinosaurs….

    • “Deserve” implies a Universal Morality that I don’t believe exists Jim. If a flaming bolide slams into Earth and toasts humanity there’s no right or wrong to it, it’s just celestial mechanics at work. Shitting in our own nest is certainly within our rights and no higher authority is going to step in and stop us.

      However there is certainly circumstantial morality, and there I agree with you, we are not upholding our responsibility to ourselves or future generations. I was never a denier but Brian has been slowly steering my thoughts on anthropogenic warming from minimal to substantial.

      That begets all sorts of questions though, like how do we tell the 6 billion or so poor people in this world that yeah, our rich white big house and fancy cars lifestyle is cool but they can’t have it? Who’s going to put out all the cooking fires and stop the farmers from slash and burn clearing? Who’s going to hamstring the emerging middle class in China, India, and the Pacific Rim?

      LNG helps, at least versus coal but it’s still sequestered carbon. Humans need industry and industry need energy. For all the fatalism I still see things like nuclear and biomass fuels as logical ways to ameliorate this problem. Our (US) alky subsidies are insane though, I can’t believe people are starving while we’re turning food into inefficient fuel.
      That is wrong on so many levels.