15 March 2012 by Pelle Neroth
Most people with half an eye on the story may well have thought that, after the alarm of record low ice levels five years ago, which prompted massive headlines, minimum ice levels had recovered a little. Indeed, after record lows of 4.2 million square kilometres the ice cover grew in 2008 and 2009 before falling a little in 2010 and 2011, but still up on 2007. (Data from the NSIDC.)
Alas, ice extent does not tell the whole story, and the ice statistics that support the background the news of increasing traffic is this: another graph, calculated by the Pan Arctic Ice Modeling and Assimilation system (PIOMAS) at the Polar Center of the University of Washington shows an even gloomier picture.
It looks at total volume of ice making up the ice cap floating on the Arctic Ocean, rather than the area; see this graph of daily Arctic ice volume and this graph showing minimum Arctic sea ice volume between 1979 and 2011. The numbers for September 2011 (the month when ice is at its minimum annual extent) is 4,000 cubic kilometres. That is almost 40 percent below the 2007 figure, that otherwise bad year, and - for reference's sake - 75% down on September 1979. That is drastic. It reflects the decline of thicker multiyear ice, and the thinning is speeding up.
Axel Schweiger, lead scientist in the PIOMAS programme, told me: "We have checked our simulations fairly carefully against pretty much every available observation of ice thickness to volume there is.To be sure, there is some uncertainty in the volume trends, that's what we tried to quantify. However, this uncertainty isn't large enough to allow for any conclusion other than that the volume loss has been dramatic."
What are the Arctic states doing? Tentatively cooperating, and trying to keep non Arctic states out. In 2010, Russia and Norway signed a treaty that agreed to divide a 145,000 square kilometre disputed area of the Barents Sea between them after a 40 year standoff. Last May the Russian and Norwegian navies went on a joint military exercise involving 10 vessels, three helicopters and units from their coast guard. They practised search and rescue, oil spill prevention, air defence, communications protocols, and boarding exercises. There is another one, Pomor 2012, coming up between the old Cold War adversaries in May. (Norway is still close to the US, "knows which side its bread is buttered on", says one insider.) The oil company Chevron is in Moscow eyeing a deal with the newly re-elected president Vladimir Putin after he recently promised to open up Russia's offshore resources for modernisation and western investment.
Just a few weeks ago, Putin met a group of Canadian journalists with a proposal that Canada and Russian jointly assemble scientific teams to help peacefully determine the border of the continental shelf so resources can fairly divided up by the Arctic-facing ations. The United States Geological Survey estimates that up to 25% of the world's remaining oil and natural gas resources, and mineral resources, might reside in the Arctic.
Prof Rob Huebert, an expert in Arctic policy at the University of Calgary, points out that Russia has started flying nuclear armed aerial patrols and carried out submarine missile launches under the Arctic ice cap; but a study by the Norwegian Defence Research institute (here, in Norwegian) said Russia has enough on its hands guarding the borders with the Caucasus and China to go big militarising the Arctic.
Canada's conservative premier Stephen Harper has often warned about the Russian military threat in public but, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable, in private he told NATO's secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen there was no likelihood of Arctic states going to war, but that some non-Arctic members favoured a NATO role in the Arctic because it would give them influence in an area where "they don't belong".
Huebert told me Harper was referring to the EU, Britain and France, which are not Arctic nations but are trying their best to get involved. "France is giving their whole navy Arctic training, while both Britain and France have revived their polar submarine capacity." He added: "Harper is firing a shot across their bows."
The European commission is eager to get a seat on the Arctic Council, on which the Scandinavian states are represented, and which is rapidly acquiring practical competences such as search and rescue. So far, the EU has been rebuffed. This is a political story that is going to grow and grow - as the ice cap gets smaller and smaller.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 03 July 2012 at 04:12 PM by View from Brussels Moderator
Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 15 March 2012 01:32 AM General
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