Listening to the Arctic

The Arctic is warming at a rate twice that of the global average, and protecting it is of vital importance.

Walruses rest on an ice floe in the Chukchi sea in the Arctic
The Arctic region of Alaska is in the most biologically diverse quadrant of the circumpolar north [REUTERS]

Last week brought good news from the trenches of resistance to extractivist industries as two energy companies were forced to abandon major drilling projects. In the Peruvian Amazon, Talisman Energy officially abandoned oil-drilling plans in Achuar territory. The Canadian company was forced to leave Block 64 because the Achuar people vetoed drilling on their lands. Meanwhile, in the Arctic, Shell Oil announced that it was abandoning drilling operations in the Chukchi Sea.

While both oil companies gave up drilling, it is for very different reasons. Legislation protecting indigenous authority over land stopped drilling initiatives in the Peruvian Amazon. Shell’s Arctic operations, in turn, were halted by technical setbacks.

Talisman’s permanent exit signals that indigenous peoples own their land and confirms the validity of international law on prior consultation and consent. Shell, on the other hand, promised to come back better prepared next year and is suing Greenpeace USA and 13 other environmental and indigenous organisations for contesting its Arctic operations. The halt of drilling in Arctic Alaska may bring immediate relief, but it announces grimmer prospects for the future.

Not so easy drilling, baby

 Arctic way of living ‘under threat’

Seven years and billions of dollars later, Shell’s Arctic programme has been anything but serendipitous. First, the launch of operations was delayed by unusually large volumes of floating sea-ice. Then, only a day after drilling began, the company was forced to pull a pioneering well off the Chukchi seafloor because of an approaching ice pack. About 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, the ice floe was no threat, mind you, as Shell’s spokesperson insisted the halting was a simple precaution. Then last week the company confirmed difficulties installing an oil-spill containment dome, thus renouncing its pursuit of drilling for this season.

Shell’s lack of preparedness for the harshness of the Arctic forced the company to forgo current drilling operations. Yet working conditions are not getting any easier. Scientists believe the Bering Sea will continue to chill, partly because of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a long-term atmospheric pattern similar to El Niño but operating over a much longer timeframe. In addition to the tricky business of maintaining wells on Arctic seafloors, scientists warn about the lack of knowledge and technology to handle drilling beneath the ice.

Although Shell has gained experiential knowledge of the dangers of working in such extreme conditions, it moves relentlessly forward in its race for Arctic oil. The company had already reassured investors that the halting will permit to lay stronger foundations for 2013. It is using the remaining days of the season to develop top holes, which consist of drilling wells that will be capped until the company gets the longer-term permits. So drilling has been halted only in the short-term, and not because of the dangers it entails. And they are plenty.

Arctic voices

Part of our failure to recognise the dangers at stake is that the Arctic still tends to be perceived as a big barren desert of ice, apolitical and disconnected from our political concerns, up for grabs. The book Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point offers an encyclopedic approach to reframe such understandings. Edited by Subhankar Banerjee, the volumes bridges scientific perspectives, art, and storytelling to analyse the stakes entailed in drilling operations in the Arctic today.

 Arctic wildlife at risk from climate change

Arctic Voices explains the region’s growing geo-political value. With 30 billion barrels of petroleum reserves between the Beaufort and Chukchi seas alone, the scramble for Arctic oil has gone global. This only accounts for four years of US consumption (which is a little over 7.5 billion barrels per year). Yet Nick Jans, one of the 40 book contributors, points out there is a maximum of 4 trillion tons of bituminous coal in the western Arctic of Alaska, which is close to nine per cent of known global reserves. Since the US consumes about 1 billion tons per year, the Arctic could be producing coal for the next four thousand years.

The book documents the devastating impact of the oil industry with incredible precision. In Prudhoe Bay, oil fields average more than one spill a day, imposing extreme costs on public health. Rosemary Ahtuangaruak explains that in her hometown there has been a 600 per cent increase in respiratory illnesses since the construction of the alpine oil field next to Nuiqsut. Pollution is so intense that in some locales the breast milk of Arctic women is scientifically regarded as being as toxic as hazardous waste – what Marla Cone calls the Arctic paradox.

Our global tipping point

Perhaps one of the most important things Arctic Voices does is to portray a globally interconnected Arctic, invalidating claims such as those made by Senator Ted Stevens who has been quoted claiming that the Arctic is empty and ugly. There is nothing empty about the Arctic. Just like the Amazon, it is one of the top ecologically diverse places on earth.

The Arctic region of Alaska, where Shell is drilling, is in the most biologically diverse quadrant of the circumpolar north. Hundreds of millions of birds (including the yellow wagtail from Kolkata) migrate through it, and over 60 thousand beluga whales migrate through the Chukchi Sea today. The region’s diversity is underscored by the presence of 450 species of fish, crustaceans, mollusks, over 50 species of bird, 20 million individuals seabirds, and 25 species of marine mammals including the world’s rarest whale, the north pacific right whale.

The book explains that the Arctic is a “garden” to Iñupiat people, who have lived off its bounty for thousands of years. The real name of the Bering Sea, “imarpik” in the native language, translates into “big container” – defining it for its abundant resources. Iñupiat approach the sea as the centre of the universe, a breadbasket, and a place of ancestry. Arctic seas assure the subsistence of the mainland US too. Its fish and shellfish make up almost half (by weight) of all fishery production in US waters. Dutch Harbour on its southern edge has ranked number one among fishing ports since 1981.

What makes the Arctic so interconnected to the rest of the world is that it is the planet’s tipping point. Stressed by the double jeopardy represented by fossil fuels and climate change, the Arctic is warming at a rate double to that of the rest of the planet. A photograph by Banerjee shows a coffin exposed from melting of permafrost, and scientists estimate the bears of Hudson Bay will disappear within a few decades at best, within a decade at worst. In other words: the Arctic is our canary in the mine.

Scientists en masse are confirming what native people have been reporting for years. The glaciers, so essential to the ecosystem of Arctic Ocean, are melting at an alarming rate. The Yukon Flats refuge is where scientists are documenting the earliest evidence of climate change, including shrinking lakes, warmer temperatures, and wildfires, with all the impact those have on wildlife. As the ice grows thinner, the entire US population of polar bears, beluga whales, bowhead whales, walrus, ice seals, and so many more crabs and fish that rely on the Arctic’s sea ice environment are becoming threatened species.

The Arctic stretches beyond the confines of our imaginations, says Arctic Voices editor Banerjee – no roads to link communities, extreme weather conditions. It is what dreams are made of, a place of ice and snow, where icebergs and polar bears roam along with Santa Claus. Yet, surprisingly, the Arctic is our home, and we should care about it. Not to preserve a romantic image, but because it is vital to the world we inhabit. As Banerjee points out, what we do in the Arctic is a decision about what we decide to be as a society.

Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.