The Arctic is a ground zero for climate change. Sprague Theobold wonders why more people aren’t paying attention to it.
In 2009 I took my 57-foot trawler, Bagan, to and through the Arctic’s infamous Northwest Passage. We were the first production powerboat in history to accomplish what so many others have given their lives trying to do. During the five-month journey, I learned that unlike the Antarctic, the northern most frontier of our world faces some very real and present dangers.
Unlike the international treaty which is in place for the Antarctic, the world at large is still squabbling over the wording for a treaty, (UNCLOS) which includes the Artic and its surrounding seas. This treaty would protect a frozen and fragile area which is said to hold far more oil than Saudi Arabia’s proven oil reserves. Signaling that the future is indeed here, we have seen the first Arctic bound oil platform recently run aground before it was even in place.
According to some reports, during the last 25-years this area has lost over 40% of multi-year ice, making increased access to timber and minerals. These minerals include lead, nickel, zinc, magnesium and diamonds, some of which lay under the now exposed surface. (Sadly we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the seabed of the Arctic Ocean.) It should be pointed out that internationally there exists an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” approach regarding the Arctic. Between 1959 and 1990, Russia dumped 18 nuclear reactors into the Arctic Ocean, several of them still containing nuclear fuel. Unlike the Antarctic, the Arctic region is not governed by comprehensive multilateral regulations. All of this spells out disastrous scenarios that have already begun to erupt, something like a modern day version of the Wild West.
The question becomes: why would concerned nations allow this issue to exist? Surely those who own the Northwest Passage, in particular, would provide guardianship. Global politics and the endless thirst for profit keep nations from acting quickly. In turn, it is often the interests of critical ecological matters that lose out. It seems that an essential component is missing when it comes to the environment and this ideology must change first.
From the point of view of my untrained eye, the Northwest Passage clearly belongs to Canada. But through various interpretations of the U.N. Council on the Law of the Sea—basically a treaty which would protect not only the Arctic but many of our oceans—a treaty that the U.S. still hasn’t signed, other countries are determined to have a piece of this oil-rich prize. The U.S., Russia, Denmark and Norway all feel that the Passage belongs to them. Unless we immediately get protection into place, the area is poised at the precipice of a devastating accident.
The Northwest Passage and the Arctic are considered a “Ground Zero” for climate change, as it takes only the smallest of temperature deviation to see dramatic results. It helps if you look at it like this: if temperatures rise .25 of a degree in the Mojave, there isn’t much visible or recordable change. But take that same increase in temperature in the Arctic, and you’ll see an immediate difference, particularly regarding the fate of its polar ice cap. While transiting the Passage, I had the chance to interview locals for my documentary. Ironically there are just as many conflicting opinions in this region as within its southern counterparts in the U.S. I venture to say that these are all media driven. By no means am I climatologist or environmental professional, but from the insight was able to garner, I personally don’t feel that we’ll lose the ice cap. While there’s absolutely no denying that a change is occurring and that man certainly isn’t helping, several elders from the region maintain that is it is too soon, with too little hard information, to conclude the fate of the ice caps. Perhaps in another five decades, when we can stand back and see what the numbers say, a more precise overview will be obvious. Interestingly, I did not have to travel far to find conflicting opinions. When I asked why those who felt that severe and devastating melting were afoot, I was told they learned about it on TV. It’s my assertion that much of the hysteria is due, in no small part, to the breathless and uninformed media who have yet to put “boots on the ground” in the Passage, leaving those at Ground Zero to stand in confusion.
Profit always trumps protection and the Arctic is such a pristine and fragile ecosystem that it wouldn’t take much to destroy it. Here again we desperately need to get “boots on the ground” and identify the exact parameters of the situation. After this, a protection plan needs to be devised and implemented. Ideally this plan should be monitored by an international group and held to the strictest of standards. This is an area that once destroyed (think of the fragility of a skim coat of ice on a pond) will never revitalize.
Yet, unlike the mass media, I don’t feel that all is doom and gloom. The Arctic Ocean is a major ocean. It covers over 5-million square miles; it’s larger than Europe. Something that I find potentially encouraging is that it’s made up of Russia, Greenland, Canada, USA, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland. It’s my opinion that perhaps all eight of these countries put their intellect and resources together, we’ll be able to protect the area for generations to come.
photo courtesy of author