Farewell to the ice

The melting of the Arctic’s summer ice and with it the opening up of the Northwest Passage has triggered a rash of territorial claims


Ice, or rather the lack of it, is big news at the moment. The melting of the Arctic’s summer ice and with it the opening up of the Northwest Passage has triggered a rash of territorial claims by countries excited at the prospect of an Arctic energy bonanza.



This week the scramble for dominion over the icy region was ramped up further with the news that Britain is considering submitting a bid to the United Nations for sovereignty over more than 385,000 square miles of seabed off Antarctica.



With more than 20 per cent of the planet’s remaining fossil fuels estimated to lie beneath the Arctic it’s not difficult to see why the oil and gas companies might be chomping at the bit. But for a number of very practical reasons they will have to wait a bit longer. Although the summer ice is melting, estimates suggest that the worst-case scenario of the Arctic becoming completely ice free, will, if it happens, occur many years from now. The fossil fuels business rarely looks this far ahead and will hope to start drilling in the Arctic before then, and when it does it will encounter a hostile environment that some say represents unchartered territory.



Huge chunks of multi-season ice, tens of metres thick and tougher than the single-year ice encountered by the prospectors operating in some of the worlds other chilly zones, mean that the existing equipment just won’t do the job. Huge amounts of investment will be required to develop new more rugged types of ice-class vessels and infrastructure that can stand up to natural forces that are, even now, barely understood.



Meanwhile, for the majority of scientists, engineers and climate experts who see the Arctic melt as a result of human activity, the disappearance of these unique environments, and our insatiable desire for the fuels that contain the seeds of their destruction, is both worrying and depressing.



Jon Excell, features editor