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 Why The Arctic Must Be Protected 

Date of Publish - Wednesday, 12th September 2018

Why the Arctic must be protected 

The overwhelming case for a Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary

Last month, reports that the oldest and thickest sea ice in the Arctic has started to break up, sparked a debate about which part of the Arctic will withstand warming for the longest period. The Arctic has dominated global climate news this year and another stunning discovery grabbed global headlines last month. The thawing of the waters north of Greenland, an area that was always frozen even during the summer and referred to as ‘the last ice area’ was an unexpected shock for researchers. Another report last month predicted the disruption of the monsoon of South Asia by the accelerated melting of ice in the Arctic, a most depressing report for the Indian subcontinent already ravaged by floods and droughts and the worst ever water crisis in its history.

The Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Global temperatures have increased by around 1C (1.8 Fahrenheit) since 1880. A recent analysis, the 2016 Arctic Report Card found that temperatures during the 12-month period from October 2015 to September 2016 was 3.5C warmer than the early 1900s. In February 2018, for the first time in history, temperatures at the North Pole soared above freezing during the sunless winter months. The melting Arctic opens up new trade possibilities as the Northern Sea Route could reduce the east-west journey by two weeks, a feat that was historically considered impossible. But for the Arctic ecosystems, this is bad news. These recent developments reflect the grim reality of climate change on the one hand and human greed and apathy on the other, oblivious to the global climatic ramifications.

The story of the Arctic today begins with temperature rise, but it’s so much more, from fossil fuel addiction to global powers obsessed with economic and political hegemony from exploitation of resources buried under the melting ice. More than 4 million people live north of Arctic Circle, nearly half of them in Russia and the rest scattered across the U.S., Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The melting ice has provided an unparalleled economic opportunity for these nations to access resources, with Russia leading the way in setting up gold mines, roads and energy projects while other Arctic countries are scrambling to catch up. It is unnerving that while a growing body of scientific evidence points to a systemic collapse of Arctic ecosystems, business and political leaders are intent on ringing the death knell by manoeuvring for economic exploitation.

Last week, Russia’s environmental ministry published a report that paints an apocalyptic future for the country due to climate change, with consequences including epidemics, drought, mass flooding and hunger. Yet, it is Russia which stands to reap economic benefits from the rise in global temperatures with the opening of navigation and more economic activity in the winter. And while record temperatures this summer seared regions in the Arctic circle, with unprecedented forest fires in Siberia and Scandinavia, another claimant to the region’s riches, Denmark, announced plans for the shipping giant Maersk Line, the world's largest shipping company, to send a large container vessel through Russia's Northern Sea Route.

The impact of accelerated Arctic ice melting on the South West Monsoon was described in a new paper published by scientists at the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) at Goa earlier this month. The researchers found that cascading effects of physical changes in the Arctic region due to warming will significantly alter the state and the balance of the earth’s climate system. An earlier study by the NCAOR had found a direct physical link; increased melting of Arctic glaciers affected the difference between land and sea temperature, resulting in the higher intensity of the monsoon rains.

The melting ice has propelled a geopolitical contest in the Arctic region. Both Denmark and Russia have staked their claims to a large part of the Arctic ocean, including the North Pole. In fact, Russia has an outsized Arctic presence, in both coastline and population, and stands to benefit the most from the melting ice. With access to new shipping routes and energy reserves, Russia is positioning itself for an uncontested strategic military advantage from the opening of the Arctic. The Russians have even planted a titanium Russian flag on the sea floor just below the North Pole. Even non-Arctic countries like China has established a toehold in the economics of the region by strategic financial investments.  

Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic is dominated by sea ice, which according to NASA, is shrinking in extent at the rate of around 13% a decade since 1979, due to atmospheric and oceanic warmth. Sea ice has diminished much faster than projected by climate models and scientists refer to these dramatic physical changes as Arctic amplification or positive feedback loops. The warming effects are amplified in the Arctic with the loss of albedo as the bright white surface of ice is replaced by the dark ocean, with more sunlight being absorbed than reflected.

The melting of sea ice doesn't add to rising ocean levels as it is already in the water. However, there's enough water locked up in Greenland’s melting glaciers and ice sheets to raise sea levels worldwide by over 20 feet. In the last couple of years, the hot season in Greenland has been prolonged by 30 to 40 days in the northeast regions, with record melting of ice. While weighing the economic benefits of a melting Arctic, we must remember that at least 275 million people live in cities that are vulnerable to rising sea levels. Sea level rise will eventually redraw the maps of the world and although it may take centuries to materialize, scientists say we have limited time to prevent the cataclysmic meltdown of the Greenland ice sheets.

The implications of Arctic permafrost melting have been known for a long time, including the dangers from release of long-buried carbon stores and the possible resurrection of any number of ancient diseases. Earlier this year, scientists revealed a new threat, that of surface water speeding up melting under the thermokarst lakes, and formation of vertical thaw-holes with significant acceleration in the emission of carbon dioxide and methane. Arctic land stores about twice as much carbon as the atmosphere and scientists believe the thawing lands are now emitting more carbon than they take in.

Economic activity in the Arctic region is poised to aggravate the conditions from warming of the planet. The movement of large ships break up the ice, and their dirty fuel turns the ice dark so that it can’t reflect the sun’s heat, further accelerating the thaw. Commercial fishing vessels are starting to trawl there, damaging the seabed. It doesn’t help that much of the Arctic Ocean is unprotected under the UNCLOS, which gives coastal states full authority to exploit all natural resources within 200 nautical miles or more from their coastlines. Many scientists who study the Arctic say that there’s simply no way that such dramatic change at the top of the world can avoid affecting life below it. The events of the past months are scary enough for observers to call it a death spiral; the more the ice melts, the warmer our world gets, and the warmer the world gets, the more the Arctic ice melts.

For millennia, the Arctic ice has been an air conditioning system, reflecting heat away from Earth. With 75% less Arctic sea ice in the summer than there was just 50 years ago, the oceans absorb 90% of the sun’s heat. As the ice melts away fast, it has a profound effect on the planetary climate system, disrupting weather patterns in faraway lands. Around the globe, Arctic melting is increasingly related to intensified floods and droughts and consequently, conflicts that were historically not related to climate change.

The Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary (MAPS) is a simple, effective and immediate solution that has been endorsed by leading scientists and thinkers, including Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Sylvia Earle. MAPS declares the Arctic Ocean north of the Arctic Circle an international peace park, free from exploitation of all kinds, in perpetuity. It stops all activity in the Arctic Ocean that harms the melting polar ice and ensures the regeneration of this essential ecosystem. The MAPS Treaty is an addendum to the UNCLOS that protects all Arctic Ocean waters north of the Arctic Circle. While activities like scientific investigation and local subsistence fishing are allowed under MAPS, it advocates a blanket ban on natural resource exploitation, seismic testing, commercial fishing, shipping traffic, military activity and dumping. The case for MAPS can be summed up with the new cliché - What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.



Author :
Rituraj Phukan


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