Political tension in the Arctic ratchets up as sea ice melts

  • 13 May 2011, 12:53
  • Christian

According to a report on Newsnight last night, political tensions around the issue of access to the Arctic's resources have seen a 'tremendous heightening' recently, as the rapid decline in Arctic sea ice makes accessing the oil and gas in the region into a realistic prospect. 

Newsnight sourced their report from leaked Wikileaks cables which showed diplomats from different countries tussling over potential access to the Arctic resource.

Bbc newsnight arctic

Click to watch the Newsnight report from 32 minutes.

Tom Burke, of the consultancy E3G and an advisor to the Foreign Office, noted that the rapidly changing conditions in the region were beginning to have an impact on the politics of the region:

What's made a difference in the Arctic is that the speed with which the ice is declining is much faster then people thought it would be a few years ago, so there's a real scramble going on for resources, a kind of mini version of the scramble for Africa in the 19th beginning to happen…everyone who thinks they've got a chance to get at those resources wants to get in there and stake their claim, so there s a tremendous heightening of political tensions around this issue.

In 2007, a Russian submarine planted a flag on the sea floor at the north pole. Newsnight also spoke with Professor Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University, who suggested that the pole could be free of ice within the next few years.

Presenter: What are the chances that there'll be no ice at the north pole within a few years?

Wadhams: Oh, pretty high. In fact it could easily happen that we'll have an ice free north pole within a year or two. Each year the retreat in the summer takes the ice back to this line here which is almost as far as the pole. So it only needs a fairly small extra retreat to actually expose the north pole, so I really anticipate that will happen within the next year or two, or three.

It's worth noting that this isn't the same as suggesting that the Arctic ocean will be entirely ice-free in summer in the next few years.

arctic sea ice may 2011

Artic sea ice extent May 2011. From the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Sea ice in the Arctic has seen rapid loss over the past decade, and a declining trend in both ice extent (a measurement of area) and volume over the past thirty years. Due to an alignment of a rapidly warming region and specific weather conditions, 2007 saw a record drop in the amount of sea ice at its minimum summer extent. Recent years have not seen the same amount of year-on-year fall, but most researchers now regard an 'ice-free' Arctic ocean in summer as inevitable sometime this century.

The NSIDC say:

Nobody knows exactly when the Arctic will lose its summer ice cover, because changes in the ice are introducing even more changes to the sea ice and Arctic climate. However, most researchers agree that it is a question of when, rather than if we will see ice-free summers.  


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