Time Bomb Ticks In Arctic
If there were any lingering doubts as to how ill-prepared we are to face up to the reality of climate change, they were laid to rest this month when two Russian mini submarines dove two miles under the Arctic ice to the floor of the ocean, and planted a Russian flag made of titanium on the seabed. This first manned mission to the ocean floor of the Arctic, which was carefully choreographed for a global television audience, was the ultimate geopolitical reality TV.
Russian President Vladimir V Putin congratulated the aquanauts while the Russian government simultaneously announced its claim to nearly half of the floor of the Arctic Ocean. The Putin government claims that the seabed under the pole, known as the Lomonosov Ridge, is an extension of Russia's continental shelf, and therefore Russian territory. Not to be outdone, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper hurriedly arranged a three-day visit to the Arctic to stake his country's claim to the region. Although in some respects the entire event appeared almost comical - a kind of late 19th century caricature of a colonial expedition - the intent was deadly serious. Geologists believe that 25 per cent of the earth's undiscovered oil and gas may be embedded within the rock underneath the Arctic Ocean. The oil giants are already scurrying to the front of the line, seeking contracts to exploit the vast potential of oil wealth under the Arctic ice. The oil company BP has recently established a partnership with Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil company, to explore the region.
Aside from Russia and Canada, three other countries - Norway, Denmark (Greenland is a Danish possession that reaches into the Arctic) and the United States - are all claiming the Arctic seabed as an extensionof their continental shelves and, therefore, sovereign territory. Under the Law of the Sea Treaty, adopted in 1982, signatory nations can claim exclusive economic zones for commercial exploitation, up to 200 miles out from their territorial waters. The US has never signed the treaty, amidst concerns that other provisions of the treaty would undermine US sovereignty and political independence. Now, however, the sudden new interest in Arctic oil and gas has put a fire under US legislators to ratify the treaty, lest it is edged out of the Arctic oil rush. What makes the whole development so utterly depressing is that the new interest in prospecting the Arctic subsoil and seabed for oil and gas is only now becoming possible because of climate change. For thousands of years, the fossil fuel deposits lay locked up under the ice and inaccessible. Now, global warming is melting away the Arctic ice, making possible, for the first time, the commercial exploitation of the oil and gas deposits. Ironically, the very process of burning fossil fuels releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide and forces an increase in the earth's temperature, which in turn, melts the Arctic ice, making available even more oil and gas for energy. The burning of these potential new oil and gas finds will further increase CO2 emissions in the coming decades, depleting the Arctic ice even more quickly. But the story doesn't stop here. There is a far more dangerous aspect to the unfolding drama in the Arctic. While governments and oil giants are hoping the Arctic ice will melt quickly to allow them access to the world's last treasure trove of oil and gas, climatologists are deeply worried about something else buried under the ice, that if unearthed, could wreak havoc on the earth's biosphere, with dire consequences for human life. Much of the Siberian sub-Arctic region, an area the size of France and Germany combined, is a vast frozen peat bog. Before the previous ice age, the area was mostly grassland, teeming with wildlife.
The coming of the glaciers entombed the organic matter below the permafrost, where it has remained ever since. While the surface of Siberia is largely barren, there is as much organic matter buried underneath the permafrost as there is in all of the world's tropical rainforests. Now, with the earth's temperature steadily rising because of CO2 and other global warming gas emissions, the permafrost is melting, both on land and along the seabeds. If the thawing of the permafrost is in the presence of oxygen on land, the decomposing of organic matter leads to the production of CO2.
If the permafrost thaws along lake shelves, in the absence of oxygen, the decomposing matter releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane is the most potent of the greenhouse gases, with a greenhouse effect that is 23 times greater than that of CO2. Researchers are beginning to warn of a tipping point sometime within this century when the release of carbon dioxide and methane could create an uncontrollable feedback effect, dramatically warming the atmosphere, which will, in turn, warm the land, lakes and seabed, further melting the permafrost and releasing more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.
Once that threshold is reached, there is nothing human beings can do, of a technological or political nature, to stop the runaway feedback effect. Scientists suspect that similar events have occurred in the ancient past, between glacial and interglacial periods. Katy Walter of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and her research team calls the permafrost melt a giant "ticking time bomb". A global tragedy of monumental proportions is unfolding at the top of the world, and the human race is all but oblivious to what's happening.