Contributed by Dr. John D. Harper, FGSA,FGAC, PGeol., former director of the Geological Survey of Canada © May 2017
I have recently been asked to comment on three articles published in The Economist. My background for such a response is as a Professor of Petroleum Geology and Sedimentology (ret.), a former Director-Energy for the Geological Survey of Canada, a former researcher in industry, and as an academic researcher on sea level changes and climate documentation through geologic time, Natural Resources of the Future and a couple of decades of studies in the Arctic.
1) Skating on thin ice: The thawing Arctic threatens an environmental catastrophe. Apr 27, 2017
2) The Arctic as it is known today is almost certainly gone. April 29, 2017
3) Thaw point: As the Arctic melts the world’s weather suffers. April 29, 2017
Before I reply I wish to state that the calibre of the articles would not pass scrutiny at the university undergraduate level because they violate all the rules of verification of sources for the statements made and they apply fear-mongering approach to support their speculations, thereby demonstrating a lack of confidence in their own commentary. They address sea level rise with little understanding of the complex relationships involved. They address oil exploration not understanding the economic drivers and they discuss shipping without knowing the facts of current activities, nor the economic drivers there as well.
That having been said let’s look at their comments and speculations. The title for “(1) Skating on thin ice” invokes the thought of catastrophe. Twenty thousand years ago much of the northern hemisphere was covered with ice. Canada as we know it today did not exist. To the humans of the day their sphere of knowledge of weather conditions was limited and local. Even at that time the ice was beginning to melt so that by 13000 years ago we saw archeological evidence of human occupation in the mainland US. By ~9000 years ago we have physical evidence of humans in North America in the form of the skeleton of a young woman who was interred in the La Brea tar pits. Did these people experience warming and climate change? Absolutely! Was such change catastrophic? On the contrary! Humans excelled, progressed, and spread around the world. They took advantage of the new opportunities provided to them and in turn began to affect the biological world around them. They continued to evolve socially until great societies were built and empires were constructed. The improvement of climate made all this possible and humans had no impact on causing those changes. They took advantage of them. The melting has not yet terminated. It continues. How completely the melting will take place we don’t know, but we cannot stop a process we do not understand and did not initiate. The comment that “perhaps …the consequences [will be] merely terrible rather than catastrophic”. So what do these fear-based terms mean? The climatic changes in the last 20000 years far exceed anything we see or speculate could occur in the next few years. What did the early humans have to fear? Absolutely nothing! The effort to promote fear is ludicrous since we cannot even define what that means.
Could the ice completely disappear? Well during the Cretaceous (170-60 million years ago) the Earth had a greenhouse climate with very little evidence of glaciation. The dinosaurs loved it. The vegetation loved it. Mammals took advantage of it to expand into new environments. Was that climate a catastrophe? Far from it! Did humans influence CO2 in the atmosphere? No because they didn’t exist. Was that climatic change a catastrophe? If humans had lived at that time they would have populated every tropical area they could find. Certainly there was no catastrophe.
The author(s) then address the issue of sea level rise. If one looks at the historical sea level rise curves for all areas of the Earth one sees a very rapid rise during the active meltback of the global ice cover until about 9000 years ago when the rise began to significantly decline in rate to the point that other Earth motions can now be determined to come into play. Such relative relationships between sea level rise and land motions can begin to be separated as to influence. Sea level rise is not accelerating but it will be a force to be reckoned with in coastal regions in the future. The only influence that humans have in this context is they love to live along the coast so they will have to be accommodating to nature. We certainly cannot stop it. Was the sea level fall at the beginning of the last ice age a catastrophe? Not at all! Humans continued to “follow the sea” for its pleasures and its bounty of food. At that time, they had no idea the sea level was falling and each individual did not live long enough for a record to be established. The record from 2002 to 2016 is of little consequence in the context of the historical record over thousands of years.
Attention is drawn to the fact that biologic populations are changing in the various ecologic environments and their numbers are also changing. Living creatures are opportunistic. If new environments become available to populate they will move into those environments. Remember the dinosaurs. They were followed by the mammals. Was that a catastrophe? For the dinosaurs maybe, but certainly not for the mammals. Biologic populations are never static. They change and we cannot stop them. On the other hand, many cope. Take a look at the coyote who can compete in the urban world but the wolf was almost driven to extinction by humans, as were the buffalo. Wildlife has more to fear from humans than they do from the climate.
Concern has been expressed for the freshwater being introduced into the Arctic; are you aware that 49 Million years ago the Arctic was a freshwater pond? Was it a catastrophe? Far from it. As the barriers to the South opened in response to plate tectonic movements, the Arctic became a saline sea again. Was it a catastrophe? Far from it. At the moment, it does not appear that a repeat of the 49 Million year occurrence will happen because no barriers exist to permit containment of the fresh water. Fresh water influx tends to be mixed and moved by the currents almost instantly. So, the stated “cold hard facts” completely lack validity.
We then are drawn to consider the end of Shell operations in the Chukchi Sea as though the decision was a consequence of Arctic events. Not really. The cost of Arctic exploration is incredibly high. With the advent of hydraulic fracturing the supply of oil has far-exceeded anything even people in the industry would have expected. It is simply a matter of economics. Why break the bank in the Arctic when you can do so much better at much lower costs in the Gulf of Mexico, or offshore West Africa and Brazil. Don’t forget that BP and ExxonMobil committed close to US$1 Billion for a five-year commitment to study leases in the Canadian Beaufort Sea. They have only pulled back because of government policies, decreased oil prices and general economic uncertainties. The decisions had nothing to do with climate.
The author suggests that the Arctic shipping industry has backed off. Well once again it is a function of economics, availability of ice-class ships which meet the requirements of government legislation, and markets that justify the costs. When the mining business was fully active there were numerous ice-class ships which traversed Arctic routes. That industry has its own fair share of economic considerations which have slowed the expansion at this point. The opportunities have not vanished but rather await greater certainties as how to move ahead. Environmental issues, the Law of the Sea submissions, and hydrographic mapping of the sea floor for best routes are but a few of the issues being addressed. Arctic circumnavigation will have its day for certain. Humans jump to face opportunities.
Russia is and always will be a big player in the Arctic. The discussion has been presented that Russia has half of the Arctic coastline. That is not what counts. The continental shelf on the Russian side is of a far greater area than that of Canada’s or any other country’s shelves. The oil and gas potential on the Russian shelves may be as great as the Gulf of Mexico continental shelf. Once the Russians begin their exploratory activities the North American activities will pick up. Once the industries see the opportunities happening the Arctic potential will begin to be realized. It is simply a matter of time.
The potential for environmental calamity depends on what is meant by “calamity”. No one has quantified all the possible problems to be anticipated although efforts are being made to do so. An oil spill under ice at the wrong time of year would be a disaster. But the industry accepts this and has been diligently working to improve well control. Governments are becoming increasingly aware of such concerns. Those concerns must be met and I believe will be. The question is when.
Finally, geoengineering is touted as being worthwhile. Humans are great at coming up with significant technical ideas but if there is a concern that the loss of ice will influence Arctic weather patterns the last thing we need to be doing is turn loose a bunch of engineers to play games with those patterns. Why not try to stop tornadoes before turning one’s hand to the Arctic? So far it cannot be done.
Is it too late for the Arctic as stated in the article? Absolutely not! Incredible social, environmental, technical, and economic benefits lay before us in the Arctic. Prudent stewardship which includes the indigenous populations, which accepts that we must accommodate the changes taking place, and accepts that we cannot be so arrogant as to think we can stop those changes, is warranted.
Lastly the “Thaw point article” and the ‘End of the Arctic as we know it” are based on speculation and are readily addressed by the issues discussed earlier. I am sure Sir John Franklin, if he were still here, would be quick to say the Arctic today is nothing like what he had to face. The authors state some important truths. “… the state of the Arctic shows that humans cannot simply undo climate change. They will have to adapt to it.”(April 29, 2017; Arctic thaw) “… the gap between theory and practice is enormous and ethically fraught.”April 29, 2017; Arctic gone) It is time to get off the climate change bandwagon and put our efforts towards the understanding of how to accommodate what is happening.