Who Owns the Arctic?

A critical question – as the world faces the possibility of an Arctic Ocean that may soon be ice-free in late summer.

Through her nomination as the Republican Party’s Vice Presidential candidate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has increased interest in her state and its energy resources. Meanwhile, Russia has become more aggressive in controlling territory with energy resources. Both Russia and the United States are now rushing to claim energy resources that may lie below the Arctic Ocean.

icebreaker
Creative Commons License photo credit: angela7dreams

In producing an update for the Planetarium’s Ice Worlds show, we discovered political and economic changes that follow the loss of Arctic sea ice.  The melting of Arctic Sea ice has opened the Northwest Passage through the Canadian islands, past the coast of northern Alaska and into the northern Pacific Ocean. This course reduces the ocean distance between Europe and Asia by 5,000 nautical miles. An increase in summer shipping through the Arctic is on its way – from cruise ships to oil tankers. Ice cover is lowest in late summer so the passage remains open now for the second summer. It will close again with the cold of Arctic winter. 

Icebergs and Parakeets. Lago Grey, Patagonia
Creative Commons License photo credit: Steve Deger

Melting Arctic ice will soon open up much of the Arctic Ocean to travel and to the mining of oil and gas underneath Arctic waters. Only five bordering countries can claim parts of the Arctic sea floor: Russia, Norway, Denmark (through its ownership of Greenland), Canada, and the United States. (Here is a territorial map of the Arctic.) Historically, a country could claim exclusive economic control over fishing and mining of resources in an area extending 200 nautical miles from its coastline. This boundary leaves the central Arctic Ocean unclaimed.

However, according to the Law of the Sea treaty, countries can extend their claim in areas that are an extension of that country’s undersea continental shelf. The US Geological Survey estimates that 22% of the worlds’ undiscovered resources, including oil and natural gas, lie in the extensive continental shelves of the Arctic. Therefore, the shape of these continental shelves is critical in determining who owns these resources.

Perito Moreno
Creative Commons License photo credit: untipografico

The Lomonosov Ridge extends from the continental shelf that borders Canada and Greenland, over the Pole, to Russia’s continental shelf. All three nations now claim this ridge as an extension of their continental shelves and seek to extend their territory to the North Pole.

In August 2007, two mini-submarines, the Mir 1 and Mir 2, planted a one meter-high Russian flag on the ridge near the North Pole. Descending to 4,300 meters, the mini-subs collected water and sediment samples from the seabed to shore up the Russian claim that the ridge is an integral part of Russia. If recognized, this claim would give Russia control of almost half of the Arctic Ocean seabed. The “Cold Rush” has begun!

To learn more about the Poles of Earth and the other ice worlds of the solar system, visit the newly revised Ice Worlds show, beginning this weekend.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (8.18.08)

Robot Vista
Creative Commons License photo credit: Kiwi Flickr

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Robots: they’re so hot right now. A new surveillance bot looks really cool – but it’s also extremely noisy (and so not very good for surveillance.) And – this robot could save your life.

A humpback whale has lost its way, somehow ending up in the Baltic Sea – an area that lacks the food it will need to survive.

What’s it like to be an Olympian’s brain?

It only stood waist high, but it might have given Usain Bolt a run for his money – the small British Ornithopod Hypsilophodon foxii was so fast it had a special adaptation to keep its ribs from rattling at top speeds.

Shockingly, Bigfoot find turns out to be a hoax. (Though with a web site like this, I can see why major networks attended the “press conference.”)

The NASA spacecraft Cassini has taken “razor-sharp” images of 1000-meter deep fissures in the surface of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons – a place believed likely to contain life (or at least, more likely than other places in space).

A new study from the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center indicates that low density foods may be the key to weight loss. Sponsored by the Mushroom Council, the study recommends foods that have a low ration of calories to volume, like…mushrooms.

As Arctic ice melts, Canada will search for the remains of a 19th century expedition that was lost in pursuit of the Northwest Passage.

Seven significant changes

Recently, The Houston Museum of Natural Science has been working with the University of New Hampshire to create a new full-dome planetarium show - Ice Worlds (now showing). From the poles of the Earth to the exploration of other ice planets in our solar system, this film explores the state of ice and liquid water throughout the galaxy, and climate changes here on Earth. As part of the Ice Worlds program, we are featuring Ice Bulletins as visitors enter the planetarium theater. If you want to know what’s Hot on the Cold Poles, these are the best current events we have found. 

(We are also fortunate to have blog posts from Chris Linder, a scientist currently studying glacial lakes in Greenland. He will be calling in to the museum for a live-from-the-ice Q&A session on July 21.)

arg20080405.152
Creative Commons License photo credit: Irotzabal

1. Changing global temperatures have caused coastal erosion along the Artic Ocean and can cause increased storm exposure.

Coastal areas with open water have more potential for wave action (as well as flooding and hurricanes) than a frozen shoreline. Studies from 1950-2000 have indicated a warming trend in the Chukchi and southern Beaufort Seas, which corresponds to a decrease in sea ice coverage. Longer, warmer seasons translate to less ice, and more open water, which in turn leads to more waves, floods, and storms.

2. Increase in Russian river discharge to the Arctic Ocean.

The amount of water flowing through rivers to the Arctic Ocean in Eurasia has been increasing over the last 70 years. More recently, (2000-2004) this flow has increased even more. If the trend continues, some scientists predict this could impact the global climate, perhaps leading to the cooling of Northern Europe.

3. Greening of the Arctic “shrubiness”

The warming of the Alaskan Arctic during the past 150 years has accelerated over the last three decades. This is expected to increase vegetation productivity in tundra if shrubs become more abundant; indeed, this transition may already be under way, according to local plot studies and remote sensing.

Perito Moreno
Creative Commons License photo credit: untipografico

4. Acceleration of Greenland ice sheet melt.

Using satellite radar interferometry observations of Greenland, scientists have detected widespread glacier acceleration below 66° north between 1996 and 2000, which rapidly expanded to 70° north in 2005. Accelerated ice discharge in the west and particularly in the east doubled the ice sheet mass deficit in the last decade from 90 to 220 cubic kilometers per year. As more glaciers accelerate farther north, Greenland’s contributions to sea-level rise will continue to increase.

5. Opening of the Northwest passage

The legendary passage was first navigated with great difficulty using a relatively small ship by explorer Roald Amundsen in 1903 to 1906. Predictions for the opening of the Northwest Passage have ranged from 2012 to 2080 at their most conservative. “We’re several decades ahead of schedule right now,” said Mark Serreze, a senior scientist at the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, which monitors the region. Fully navigable, the Northwest Passage will make the trip 4,000 miles shorter for ships traveling between Europe and Asia, allowing them to avoid the Panama Canal. “The notion of coming to an ice-free Arctic Ocean even by 2030 is not totally unreasonable,” Serreze said.

polarbears
Creative Commons License photo credit: myradphotos

6. Polar bears are becoming an endangered species

The US Department of the Interior listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act based on studies claiming the loss of sea ice threatens, and will likely continue to threaten, polar bear habitat. The studies cite differences in sea ice from the fall of 1979 to the fall of 2007 and projected declines in sea ice by the middle of the 21st century. Although some females use snow dens on land for birthing cubs, polar bears are almost completely dependent upon sea ice for their sustenance. Any significant changes in the abundance, distribution, or existence of sea ice will have effects on the number and behavior of these animals and their prey. Canada has listed the polar bear as a “species of concern” since 2002 and is currently conducting a status review as of 2008.

7. Shortening of winter season means less lake ice and shorter time to use ice roads.

The oil industry and support services withdraw water from freshwater lakes and ponds to build ice roads and pads in the Arctic for increased access to remote sites. This technique is important to the oil industry, in that it allows oil field development or maintenance, while avoiding the environmental disturbance associated with construction of gravel roads and pads. The decrease in the time during which ice roads can be used is due to a changing climate. Ice roads are constructed using water from ponds, lakes, and rivers. Rivers themselves are traversed using ice bridges. The industry must have all drilling equipment back to gravel bases before the ice road deteriorates. The season ends when the first ice bridge is washed out. The ice bridge failures are a function of melting further south in the stream’s headwaters.

Learn more:

Breaking news from the Greenland Ice Sheet

Cold Ice & Warm Socks

Titanic and Today