I've handed the reins of my blog over to Mark Avery for most of June. Mark's sharing the successes and challenges of saving nature around the world in the run up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit.
It is unclear when the first person got to the North Pole, but it may well have been Roald Amundsen, 14 years after he beat Scott to the South Pole, as other previous claims of success are now doubted.
The Arctic is equally deserving of Scott’s description of Antarctica; ‘Great god! This is an awful place…’ but as the planet warms, and the Arctic has warmed twice as quickly as the rest of the world, and with technological advances, the Arctic will become more accessible to development.
Arctic sea ice has reduced in extent by about 2.7% each decade since 1978 and this will open up the Arctic Ocean to more shipping and to fisheries but there may also be a mixing of marine species between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which hasn’t occurred in the last 800,000 years and ice-dependent polar bears and seals will suffer from loss of habitat.
Unlike the Antarctic where there is a global convention banning exploitation, the Arctic is up for grabs and it seems more and more likely that there will be a ‘cold rush’ in future to exploit its oil, gas and fish.
Thinking of the Arctic challenges our view of our planet – quite literally. Get a globe and look down at the North Pole and you will see that Canada, the USA and Russia are all near neighbours in this area and the prospect of a ‘gold rush’ style ‘cold rush’ is worrying. Gold rushes have not been polite, orderly or very safe affairs and it is to be hoped that with nuclear powers involved, Arctic exploitation, which seems inevitable, might be managed better.
The Arctic accounts for about 13% of the undiscovered oil, 30% of the undiscovered natural gas, and 20% of the undiscovered natural gas liquids in the world. As oil prices rise these resources may become too tempting to resist, and I suppose, that if they are exploited in the best possible way then they should be tapped.
Scientists are calling for nations to agree a plan for harvesting Arctic fisheries sustainably. The warming of the Arctic Ocean may be good news for the cod, herring and pollock fisheries as all species have increased in numbers in previous short periods of warmer climate. The opening of a new fishing frontier surely calls for our species to show that, given the hard-won experience we have had of exploiting fisheries unsustainably over a long period of time we do much better in this instance. I wonder, will we?
I have to admit to feeling uneasy about Arctic exploitation but maybe I shouldn’t. I think the root of my unease is a concern over whether we will do it well or badly – the best scenario is great, the worst scenario is awful. But another part of my unease is that there are few wildernesses left. We never give up any of the planet and turn it back to wilderness; instead it’s a one way street of development and industrialisation. How do you feel about it?
There are lots of ways you can Step Up for Nature at home here are some green living tips to get you started.
Dr Mark Avery is a former Conservation Director of the RSPB and now is a writer on environmental matters. We’ve asked Mark to write these 20 essays on the run up to the Rio+20 conference. His views are not necessarily those of the RSPB. Mark writes a daily blog about UK nature conservation issues.
I think your unease is extremely well founded Mark. Man's record of over exploitation and ruination of new ares of wilderness into which he ventures is appalling. The situation cries out for an Arctic convention similar to that for the Antarctic. We all need to start pressing Governments to implement such an agreement. An excellent forward looking blog Mark.
redkite - thank you!
Very little seems to be done with the long term effects,benefits and bad consequences considered
Mark, Agree with you totally but I always thought the main difference between the Antarctic and the Arctic was that there is an element of claimed ownership up North which adds to the pressure. In the south you could have a universal agreement whilst in the Arctic you are asking individual countries not to exploit the resources available to them.
Many experts, and even the UK government, have admitted that it would be impossible to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic. Therefore it is hard to see how exploitation of this unique and largely untouched region can be done “well”. There is no scenario for arctic exploitation which is ‘great’. Industrialisation of the Arctic threatens scores of species that aren’t found anywhere else on the planet as well as the livelihoods of the four million people that live there. Can you confirm that RSPB opposes the creeping industrialisation, including offshore oil and gas exploration, which poses such a serious threat to the region?
Bob - yes, that's right! But, of course, it doesn't have to be that way. We could change that.
Vickytizer - I don't speak for the RSPB so I can't confirm anything. Oil spills are generally transient disasters - bad, but time-limited. I wouldn't want to minimise their impact but your view seems quite extreme too. Since hundreds of species disappear from Earth each year then you could say that scores of species is pretty small beer really. And 4 million people - that's half of London in a vast part of the planet. Now I only put the argument that way to point out that it isn't obvious to many people that Arctic exploitation should be regulated in any way. Personally I think it should be regulated, but fear it may not ne very much.
Thanks Mark for an interesting blog. The bit that strikes a real chord with me is the fact that we stand to loose one of the world's last great wildernesses to yet another rush for riches. But then I'm a bit of a romantic...
Anyway, let me clarify the RSPB's position -
The RSPB is deeply concerned about the potential impacts of the exploitation of fossil fuels and otehr natural resources in the Arctic. That's why we worked with WWF and others last year to produce these principles for how the UK should approach the Arctic - see assets.wwf.org.uk/.../ukarctic_principles.pdf. I think these are a really good summary of what we need to do to keep the Arctic special and safe. Two points are particularly pertinent to the debate between 'regulated and sustinable exploitation' and no expolitation at all.
Firstly, can we extract and use the oil and gas in the Arctic and still avoid dangerous climate change? Almost certainly not. The IEA world energy outlook report from last year is perhaps the best evidence for this - they warned that we are on the path to dangerous levels of climate change and that we will be locked into this path by 2017 unless new investment is substantially redirected into low carbon tech. It goes without saying that Arctic exploration and exploitation represents massive new investment in fossil fuels.
Secondly, our ability to effectively regulate and mitigate risks in the offshore arctic environment is limited. Both because of the sensitive nature of the arctic ecosystem and because we (i.e. the industry, governments and ngos) have a poor understanding of the risks themselves.
Also, Mark is, I think, being a little bit dismissive about the impact of oil spills.
Oil spills can have very real and negative impacts on wildlife, particularly where they occur in or around sensitive sites. That's why, closer to home, the RSPB opposes oil exploration and exploitation in sensitive areas around the UK's shorelines.
Our position is here - www.rspb.org.uk/.../pollution.aspx
And you can also see our response to the most recent licensing round for new oil, where we objected to licenses being given for drilling in and around sensitive sites such as Rathlin island.