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Taking Advantage of a Melting Arctic

Andrew Freedman @ 10:00 AM

The media spotlight has focused recently on the frighteningly fast Arctic environmental changes taking place due to global warming. While scientists are increasing their understanding via a scaled up effort to keep tabs on the the region, policymakers are just beginning to debate the measures that will be necessary to balance demands for both increased industrial development in the Far North and protection of uniquely sensitive ecosystems.

Jason Samenow's Forecast

Forecast Confidence: Medium-HighToday: Increasing clouds, with a 30% chance of light rain (higher odds to the north) by late afternoon. Highs in the mid 50s.
Tonight: Cloudy with pockets of light rain, especially to the north. Lows 37-42.
Monday: Cloudy with a few pockets of light rain early (esp north), with highs around 50.

This past summer the white cap adorning the top of the world turned decidedly more blue as sea ice retreated faster and farther than it has since at least the beginning of satellite measurements in 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Sea ice at the end of the 2007 melt season was 39 percent below the long-term average from 1979-2000.

Contributing to this loss was a marked decline in the winter ice thickness and extent. Thinner winter ice translates into more ice loss in the summer. According to a recent study, the perennial ice shrunk by an area the size of Texas and California combined between winter 2005 and this past winter.

Arctic warming is this year's poster child of global warming, having replaced Hurricane Katrina, which was a problematic mascot. At this point all the general public sees are images of a single polar bear accompanied by a frightening headline.

The key question now is: what are we going to do in response to the changing Arctic?

Will it spur us to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Stay the course (a thousand points of light)?

The answer emanating from the capitals of Arctic nations so far is that speed is of the essence, but not just to reduce warming. No, the collective wisdom is that swift, decisive action is required to gain access to Arctic natural resources.

Yes, we must take advantage of the warming windfall by drilling for oil and gas, and in turn creating more greenhouse gases!

It would really be funny if so much weren't at stake.

Going beyond the initial absurdity of the situation, however, many experts argue, quite convincingly, that it makes sense to look to the Far North as Middle Eastern oil supplies dwindle and alternative energy technologies mature to take over more market share.

But one has to wonder what could be accomplished on alternative energy if we went after it with the zeal shown for the mere prospect of getting access to the Arctic.

Thus far, it's unclear how committed the global community is to protecting the environmentally sensitive and unique region, considering recent rhetoric.

Russia, for example, famously sent a submersible vehicle to the North Pole to plant a Russian flag beneath the sea, a publicity stunt that seems to have finally woken the U.S. Congress up to the need to devise a new Arctic strategy.

The northern resource rush requires international cooperation and clear policy guidance from Washington. But so far the sea ice is outpacing the response from oil companies, which are in turn leading governments to consider how to govern a modern day gold rush.

According to a presentation that Mead Treadwell, the presidentially-appointed chairman of the Arctic Research Council, gave at the Fletcher School last week, the Bush administration is just now closely reexamining American policies towards the Far North.

Treadwell said the last cabinet-level review of U.S. Arctic policy was in 1994, and the term "climate change" was not anywhere in that policy document. He implied that will change this time around.

Governing the Arctic is especially complicated. There is no comprehensive international treaty regime to manage the region, such as the one that exists for the Antarctic. Instead, the eight Arctic nations jointly cooperate in environmental and resource protection efforts through the Arctic Council, which relies upon the member states to enforce its decisions.

It's doubtful, however, due to the Council's structure that it will be up to the task of balancing the opposing forces involved in the modern day gold rush. A new and stronger mechanism is needed to avoid the image of a lonely, wet AND oil-slicked polar bear in the future.

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