A war is being waged in the icy regions of our beautiful planet. But instead of making peace, big business is running into the fray. In fact, they're welcoming it.
This year, the first feasible commercial freight shipments have successfully traversed the once impassable Arctic Sea. As the ice-covered waters necessary for a planet earth as we know it melt away as a result of climate change, mega shipping corporations such as Maersk and COSCO only see dollar signs.
The retreat of the world's arctic ice is being exploited by the very corporations that make their profits on the backs of the world's vulnerable peoples and ecosystems. It's tragic that the most startling indicator of climate change is being capitalized by the corporations at fault for its demise.
This new Arctic route would cut the traditional Suez route by 40 percent. But the risks to accidents and environmental catastrophe can't be quantified.
Nancy Kinner, director of the Coastal Response Research Center and Center for Spills in the Environment at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. She sees the retreat of sea ice and the industrialization of the Arctic as a potential nightmare to both the environment and peoples living in the Arctic.
“I don't think that we are prepared for the kinds of accidents that could happen, and I mean prepared with respect to navigation ... let alone a spill response,” said Kinner. “All of these are threats to a very, very fragile environment; not only an ecosystem but also to the peoples who live in those areas. A lot of them are indigenous peoples whose livelihoods depend on subsistence from the sea. So, I'm worried. We need to get our act together here (1).”
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of planet. For Jeremy Mathis, director of the Arctic program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this spells disaster for indigenous peoples. Mathis lives in the Arctic, and has noticed an alarming trend of warming in the decades after his arrival there.
“For people who live in the Arctic, there is no debate over whether their environment is changing,” he said (3). “We are seeing a destabilization of the environment in the Arctic. The ice is melting earlier and earlier and coming back later and later in the year. For people here that means a clear impact upon food security and their way of life.”
As the ice packs recede, frost locked in the soil melts, causing buildings and communities to destabilize and landscapes to erode. The potential of entire villages sinking into the sea is a real threat for many remote villages in Alaska, Canada, and Russia. According to the Arctic Institute, 230 villages are in danger of sea rise and erosion in the Arctic. With no clear plan in site to relocate or mitigate climate change, thousands of indigenous peoples who call the Arctic home are worried about the future of their ancestral homes.
“Having to move elsewhere is unimaginable,” said Vera Metcalf of the Eskimo Walrus Commission in an interview with The Guardian (3). “As an elder told me the other day, we are not going anywhere. We’ve been here for centuries. But we may have to consider it, for the sake of our children and grandchildren.”
An ancient and symbiotic way of life could be destroyed by the carelessness of just several generations. Even language is being eroded by the retreat of the ice. Indigenous languages of the Arctic possess dozens of beautifully descriptive words to celebrate and describe ice. Researchers have noticed many of these words fading from indigenous vocabulary as their purpose melts away with the ice they once described4. The Yupik people no longer use the word “taqnegheq” to describe thick, dark weathered ice. Because that ice can no longer be found.
It's ironic that the very forces melting away the Arctic are happy to exploit the scars left in the melting ice caps. A short-term gain in GDP is likely to spring up from new shipping lanes open in the Arctic Sea. But every shipment passing through ever-retreating sea ice is one more step closer to a world without an Arctic. How long will GDP demand the best of humanity's ingenuity? More importantly, how long will it take for us to see the incessant demand for more is driving us to destruction – and blinding us from the signs?
“The resources are very, very fragile in the Arctic,” Kinner said. “The biota are stressed anyway, because of climate change, and [it would] put a further stress on them to have a contaminant in the water1.”
A spill spells catastrophe in any open sea. But in the Arctic, already stressed to the breaking point as a result of climate change, a spill would be cataclysmic. Oil and other hydrocarbons will easily become trapped under established ice, and remaining oil on the surface will be caught quickly within newly formed ice. Once trapped, these deposits are beyond retrieving, and will either float for miles before melting or descend to the sea floor, where it would disrupt a vast, sophisticated, and extremely fragile ecosystem.
In the case of a spill, crews and equipment would be exceedingly difficult to transport to the remoteness of the far north. Even if a spill never happens, the alarming retreat of polar ice edges away habitat for polar bears, seals, and other arctic animals season after record-breaking season. These animals, and the indigenous peoples who's lives are dependent on the animals and environment around them, are at risk of extinction even without the added stress of shipping. Throw in the added risk of spills, ship traffic, and infrastructure associated with shipping, and the doom of polar species and people groups are sealed. This must stop before it takes root.
The retreating ice is unquestioned by the scientific community. Obviously, business is starting to come to terms, too, or else mega corporations like Maersk and COSCO wouldn't be seriously considering an arctic trade route. Amazingly, instead of conviction in light of the truth, these mega corporations exploit and celebrate pillaging of the planet, thereby institutionalizing the destruction of nature as a part of “business as usual.”
But there's nothing usual about what's going on in the Arctic.
The arctic sea ice has been receding at unprecedented rates (2). Satellite data reveal that, since 1979, winter Arctic ice has decreased roughly 3% per decade relative to the 1981-2010 average. Average ice pack has dropped precipitously year after year since the mid nineties, which marked a point-of-no-return below the historic averages.
To put things in perspective:
• The Arctic is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the planet
• 2012 set a new record low in Arctic sea ice coverage, 44% below average.
• Since 2002, a new record low ice coverage has been set four times, and several other years have experience record lows.
• The 12 lowest September ice extents in satellite record all occurred since 2007.
There's almost unanimous consensus that greenhouse gasses from human activities are to blame for the accelerated ice melt. Evidence increasingly verifies theories that less ice means more erratic climate patterns and a general warming trend, which in turn, means less ice.
The issue at hand is a tragic double-edged sword. As new shipping lanes open in the arctic, devastating spills are bound to happen. If that's not bad enough, increased shipping will spur even greater consumerism, burning the other end of the candle in the world's tilting carbon pendulum. China has announced its plans to create an “Arctic Silk Road” and has encouraged infrastructure development in the arctic. Russia, in an attempt to prop up national pride and fill its coffers, appears ready as ever to devastate one of the last great wildernesses on earth. And unfortunately, the world's growing affluence is more demanding than ever of cheaper goods faster. The short-term gain is not going to be worth it.
Scientists worry that a tipping point may have been reached where the Arctic will soon be be ice-free during the summer. A hay day for shipping companies, but a catastrophe for the Arctic and the peoples and animals that call it home.
But the needless destruction of the natural world and its peoples can and will stop with us.This journey must begin with a step back to identify parts of our lifestyle that hurt the planet and its people. Halting the impending disaster in the Arctic starts at home. Common everyday items we consume are brought to us through oceanic shipping routes. Critical analysis of consumption habits will go a long way in curbing consumerism, and reducing the temptation for shipping companies to forge a trail through the Arctic. To start, boycott the things that travel the farthest and require the most energy to produce. Keep it as close to home and low energy input as possible.
But this wont be enough to stave the onslaught of the Arctic conquest. Here are additional steps to make your voice heard.
If you want to help combat the exploitation of one of the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet please join us in petitioning Maesrk and fellow shipping companies to avoid using the North Sea Route. Go on social media and comment on their posts, make your voice heard, and don't let these companies get away with risking trillions of dollars of economic damage and priceless habitats for their economic gain. Write to the Arctic Council, Maersk, COSCO and any other bodies with the power to make a difference.
1. This quote was retrieved from an interview with PRI's Living on Earth
2. Sea ice trends were retrieved from the National Snow & Ice Data Center, https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/sotc/sea_ice.html
3. Retrieved from Alaska indigenous people see culture slipping away as sea ice vanishes. The Gaurdian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/19/alaska-sea-ice-vanishing-climate-change-indigenous-people