Archive for the ‘The Arctic’ Category

Years or Centuries?

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve all heard enough predictions about the long-term consequences of global climate change to make us want to cover our ears and run screaming from the room. Most of the warnings (which are issued with depressing regularity) concern effects taking place over many decades, even centuries. In comparison to geological time, we are like mayflies – our human perception of time makes it difficult to extrapolate threats that extend beyond our own lifetimes or that of our children or grandchildren. The time lag laid out in many of the analyses of climate change in is one of the principal challenges in corralling the political will to mitigate humanity’s impact on the environment.

Last week the National Academy of Sciences issued a lengthy report on the changes which may visit us suddenly, in a matter of years. The study, sponsored in part by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. intelligence community, warns of large and abrupt changes in the physical climate system brought on by suddenly and unexpected  tipping points. In addition to gradual, incremental changes in the environment, the report warns against abrupt ecological or socio-economic disruption as environmental conditions accelerate unpredictably. The report notes that we don’t yet know what the thresholds for such rapid changes are, and calls for a kind of early warning system composed of more vigilant monitoring of key species and environments, including the use of satellites, data collection, model testing and improvement, and model predictions that suggest future data needs. Alluding to early maps of the America’s which carried the warning, “Here be dragons”, the report details a number of possible rapidly-escalating threats, and lays out a map of its own showing how to avoid modern day dragons.

One of the studies co-authors, Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University compared the prospect of abrupt climate change to avoiding the dangers of a drunk driver on the road. “You can’t see it coming, so you can’t prepare for it. The faster it is, the less you see it coming, the more it costs. If you see the drunk driver coming, you can get out of the way.”

The report’s good news, such as it is, is that some potential threats don’t appear to be quite as imminent as once thought, as long as you don’t think 100 years is imminent: the precipitous release of underwater or frozen methane (a potent climate-altering gas) or a shutdown in the Atlantic Ocean circulation patterns (which could plunge Europe into a mini ice age) don’t appear to be in the cards in this century.

You can read the whole report as an interactive PDF here.

My Hobby Horse

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

The average human being lives 79 years in the United States. So, you’ve probably got plenty of time to contemplate this cool new interactive map from National Geographic.

It shows what the coasts of the world’s continents will look like once all the ice at the poles and sitting atop Greenland has melted. Nat Geo tells us that once all the ice has turned to water, the sea levels will have risen 216 feet. The map shows us just what that would mean. At first blush, things don’t look so different. But then you realize that the distinctive handle on the lower east corner of the United States which we now call Florida is gone. Under water entirely, and the Gulf of Mexico flows directly into the Atlantic – and up through Louisiana into Arkansas. New York? Gone. Boston? Submerged. The tidal flats in Washington D.C. are now part of the open seas, along with the White House, the Capital, and the Lincoln monument.

What looks like the San Francisco Bay is actually California’s Central Valley. Telegraph Hill in San Francisco is a pleasant island from which to view the new and immense inland sea. You could vacation on Baja California – but it would be a mighty narrow strip of land, not to mention hot.

Our offices in Seattle would be history: waves would lap far above our current roof. In fact, the Pacific Northwest, with it’s steep-glacier carved hills and high coastal mountains seems to weather the melting better than much of the rest of the country.

Other continents show similarly disconsonant coastlines. Looking for London? Look away. It’s not there, long since subsumed into the Thames/English Channel. Don’t look to Denmark for cheese. You’ll find its watery taste not to your liking. And don’t try to quaff it down with a nice Bordeaux. Venice, which is hanging on by its fingernails even now, is long gone. It’s floated off to the Caspian Sea which has merged with the Black Sea and joined the Mediterranean.

Southeast Asia, just walloped by a supertyphoon, is underwater to a remarkable degree. As is much of the Indian coastline. Bangladesh? History.

But you get the idea. Melt the ice, and the seas take over lots of our favorite real estate.

The good news is that this won’t happen in our lifetime. Nor our grandchildren’s. It is starting now, but the full effect is expected to take a few thousand years. You can still book that holiday in Holland. It’ll be there.

Which leads to the question of whether all that cold water might not counteract the warming of the oceans which is occurring now, also compliments of global climate change. Might all that fresh water cool things down in the briny deep? Won’t all that clear fresh water be a tonic for the sea creatures trying to cope with the heat and the carbon dioxide?

The Seattle Times is continuing with its laudable investigation of the effects of global warming on the world’s oceans. The latest installment chronicles the remarkable, and entirely unpredictable, ability of some species to thrive in changing waters while others give up the ghost.

“Which plants and animals can accommodate these more corrosive seas — and for how long — will depend on many factors, from where they live to their population sizes to the depth of stress they face from other forces, such as warming temperatures and pollution. Survival will vary species by species. Not everything will make it.”

The article focuses on the lowly sea urchin, which is proving surprisingly adept at weathering the changes underway in the oceans. While the urchin may adapt, it’s an open question which other flora and fauna will follow on their proverbial heels. “Evolution is not a gentle sport,” says Stephen Palumbi, a researcher quoted by the Times. “When evolution happens, it’s because the unfit are dying. It’s pretty brutal.” Another researcher quoted by the Times says simply, “When you start knocking out the very bottom of the food chain, it’s incredibly terrifying.”

So, who knows? Maybe a kind of crazy equilibrium will establish itself as we warm our air and oceans, while melting the poles. We’re an adaptable species in our own right. We might well live long enough to come to a collective understanding of how the whole thing plays out.

Salazar Departs Interior, Remembered for Advancing Renewables

Photo by Bob Johnson, USFWS Mountain Prairie, some rights reserved.

Photo by Bob Johnson, USFWS Mountain Prairie, some rights reserved.

One of the stars of the Green Mien since its inception has been Ken Salazar, Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, who announced he would be leaving Washington to return to his home in Colorado in March. He focused Interior on renewable energy and reorganized the formerly scandal-ridden agency into three agencies with clear and separate functions. We have written about his hand in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, in developing oil drilling plans in Alaska, in offshore oil and gas oversight, and much more.

The White House has given no indication as to who might succeed him, and combined with the departure of EPA’s administrator Lisa Jackson and DOE’s Steven Chu, continuity of the Obama Administration’s policies toward energy development and climate change is in question. As these vacancies are filled, expect to read about expectations for the new administrators’ goals and policies here.

Salazar has broadened the scope of Interior’s activities from its traditional focus on mining, forestry, and oil and gas development to an emphasis on renewable energy. Since 2009, the department has authorized 34 solar, wind, and geothermal energy projects, settled a 15-year legal battle with American Indian tribes, and established seven new national parks. His handling of contentious oil and gas issues, like the Deepwater Horizon spill and allowing Shell begin exploration for oil in the Arctic, drew the most headlines.

President Obama once rebuked the famously blunt former lawyer for using cowboy language. “We have our boot on their neck to make sure they got the job done,” Salazar explained, referring to Interior’s oversight of BP officials in the Deepwater Horizon spill cleanup. Hopefully we’ll be able to find another character to replace him.

Arctic Drilling: What’s it Worth?

Beaufort Sea, Alaska, one of Shell’s drill sites. Photo by NASA/Kathryn Hansen, some rights reserved.

Last week, Shell called off its plans to drill in the Arctic until next summer after part of its spill-containment system was damaged. Earlier, encroaching sea ice forced the company to abandon its drill site in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska just a day after it started drilling. Now that Shell has spent $4.5 billion on its Arctic drilling sites since 2005, we might ask, is it worth the money?

Geologists from the United States Geological Service sparked a discussion on the costs of drilling in the Arctic this week, including a succinct piece in Grist. Their research suggests that the amount of oil that can be pumped out of accessible fields in the Arctic is significantly lower than previously thought, requiring huge exploration budgets to even access the oil (this considering Arctic oil in Greenland and Russia as well). They estimate that prices of $100 to $300 a barrel would be necessary for Arctic drilling to be economically feasible.

Right now, we know little about the average cost of producing oil in the Arctic besides that it is high. It is worth noting that in the 1970s, Canadian companies ended a decade of exploration projects by sealing off drilling sites because commercial production was too expensive. We do know, however, that in the oil boom in Mozambique, French Guiana, and Angola, marginal costs are less than $70 a barrel, and that plans for drilling there go through the 2020s.

Where does that leave us? Well, with 7,000 blocks of drilling leases over 38 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico up for auction in 2013. Sure seems like there are easier places to get your oil than the Beaufort Sea.

Melting Ice in the Arctic and the Himalayas

Photo by *_*. Some rights reserved.

Bad news all around for fans of ice, stable ecosystems, and clean drinking water. Within the past two days, two news stories have chronicled ecological crises in two totally different parts of the world.

First, the National Academy of Sciences reports that glaciers in the Hindu Kush region of the Himalayas are retreating due to climate change over the last 100 years, and that this glacial retreat could have dire implications for clean water supply in nearby regions of South Asia. In addition, this retreat could easily change the patterns of monsoon rains that fall in the region, though exactly how it will affect monsoons remains to be seen. With less available water, both for agricultural purposes and to support urbanization, quality of life in this part of the world would be seriously affected in the near future.

Secondly, the Guardian reports this week on the rapid diminishing of Arctic sea ice, stating that they expect all of it to be gone by summer 2016. Over this year alone, the ice has unexpectedly dropped a drastic 500,000 sq km, to a level of 3.5 million sq km overall (this is the Guardian, after all, you do the metric conversions if you want ‘em!). After 2016, we can expect an ice-free Arctic sea, a truly outrageous suggestion. We’ve discussed in the past that as the ice is broken up, new routes will open in this area and there may well be a global political struggle over land and resources. While some of the implications are positive, the bottom line is that the breaking up of sea ice will only serve to accelerate global warming in this area, as the increased water temperatures will reach and eventually melt the continental shelves surrounding the Arctic sea, which contain frozen sediments that, when melted, will release massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere.

Offshore Drilling: Alaska, and More.

Photo by Jim Bain. Some rights reserved.

The Interior Department is very publicly scrutinizing every detail of Shell’s plan to begin drilling in the fragile Arctic this summer. Top officials are personally reviewing equipment bound for the drilling sites in Alaska and held a press conference Thursday to tout DOI’s robust testing.

The past year has seen a series of approvals for Shell’s plans. In March, DOI approved Shell’s oil spill response plans, following the EPA’s announcement in September that it had granted air pollution permits to ships associated with the drilling sites.

Last May, the Obama administration created an inter-agency team to streamline the Alaskan permitting process to help speed up domestic development and responding to political pressure over high gasoline prices as well as what Republicans have called bureaucratic permitting delays.

But the Interior Department, increasing its safety standards and scrutiny of drilling plans, wants to ensure it is seen as taking every precaution in the wake of last year’s BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement director James Watson called his agency’s standards “the most rigorous safety and oversight program ever.”

Meanwhile, despite the delays to Shell’s Alaska plan, Republican South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham introduced a bill that would allow his state to open parts of its coast, to offshore drilling 10 to 100 miles off the coast – after which it would petition the federal government for approval.

Further abroad, the questions and politics of offshore drilling are alive and well in France – Paris on Wednesday suspended  exploratory permits for offshore oil in its district of Guyana, in northeastern South America. The French environment minister cited concerns for the local marine environment and said the permits will be suspended until the mining code is reviewed. Shell and other oil companies have found significant oil reservoirs in the region, which they believe mirror the oil reserves off the coast of western Africa.

How the Militaries of the World Will Conquer the Arctic

Photo by public domain. Some rights reserved.

Do you ever wonder about what will happen in the Arctic north as the ice caps slowly (or not so slowly) melt away? According to a recent article in the Guardian:

“Arctic sea ice that used to cover around 9m sq km of ocean at the end of summer has, after 30 years, reduced at such a rate that the Arctic Ocean seems likely to be ice-free in summer by the middle of this century.”

Obviously, this exponential rise in Arctic temperatures has all sorts of global implications (not the least of which directly involve the polar bears, though fans of these Arctic beauties may want to remain ignorant on this particular issue). However, as a recent AP article on the subject reports, militaries of the eight main Arctic powers (U.S., Canada, Russia, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland) are already scrambling to run test simulations and assemble capable troops for when the ice does melt (say around 2050, if we assume that we will proceed in the interim years more or less “business as usual”) and sea routes open up across this vast Northern expanse and, along with them, a “treasure trove of resources” becomes available. The United States Geological Survey recently estimated that 13% of the world’s untapped oil resources and 30% of untapped natural gas are tied up in this currently-blocked Arctic region.

The majority of the U.S.’s military power is currently being applied elsewhere, and though our Navy does have the most sophisticated arsenal of nuclear submarines and a mostly-up-to-date Arctic Road map put together in 2009, we lack in other vehicular support, as well as Arctic facilities and communication options in this region. As such, Russia is poised to take the lead as the dominant power in the Arctic of the near-future. Though as the AP points out, “the most immediate challenge may not be war – both military and commercial assets are sparse enough to give all countries elbow room for a while – but whether militaries can respond to a disaster.”

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