16. Aug, 2019

Melting sea ice in the Arctic: pros and cons

One of the most dramatic signs of climate change is the melting of ice in the Arctic ocean. Increases in temperatures and reductions in winter sea ice will likely affect the reproduction, growth, and development of krill and fish, leading to further changes in population sizes and distributions. A potential spin-off is that in northern Siberia and Alaska melting ice will create a richer banquet of nutritious ice algae. Although the melting ice is bad news for the polar bears, released ice algae, that live in water pockets at the bottom of the ice, are eaten by animal plankton, which in turn will become food for fish and squid, which forms the diets of narwhals and beluga whales.  

The other side of the coin is the impact of the imminent industrial exploitation of the Arctic. The melting Arctic ice offers great promises for the economies of superpowers China, the US, and Russia (see also my earlier Blog).  For cargo ships an ice-free Northern Sea Route is much shorter than the Suez canal,  to reach remote target countries.  For years, Russia has been using shallow-draft nuclear-powered icebreakers to aid shipping along the frozen Arctic waterways north of Siberia. But an ice-free passage for cargo ships is not the only promise. The exploitation of rich supplies of minerals such as gold and the immense gas fields by Gazprom is another.  Future drilling platforms and settlements along the coast of Northern  Siberia will need electricity. To fulfill this need, an enormous floating nuclear 70-megawatt power plant,  Akademik_Lomonosov,  equipped with two reactors is now ready to be towed towards the most northern ‘boom’ town  Pevek. Pevek is located about 14.000 kilometers north of the town of Murmansk at the polar circle (see small circles in the picture).  

And the foreseeing Russians want more.  Russia now claims the Lomonosov Ridge in the Arctic Ocean to be depart of part of the Russian Federation's adjacent continental shelf. The Ridge spans 1,800 kilometers,  about 200 kilometers wide, and divides the Arctic Basin into the Eurasian Basin and the Amerasian Basin (see the dashed area in the figure)  Russia formally submitted its request to the United Nations arguing that the shelf is an extension of the  Eurasian continent.

Some future investors feel that investing so much money in the exploitation of the Arctic continental shelf is a risky affair,  and there are doubts if the Northern route might be profitable in the longer term. Moreover,  in a period when the attitude of the general public and political arena moves toward reducing the negative environmental impact on climate change, exploiting the Arctic does not seem such a good idea. The presence of nuclear-powered vessels and power plants in the former pristine areas also creates risks for nuclear spills and might even lead to a ‘floating Tsjernobyl’, as environmentalists have warned.