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Some Arctic good news – not #fakenews!

 

ship

Hurtigruten cruise ships (here in Tromso) do not use HFO. (I.Quaile)

With the environment and climate under constant fire from the actions of President Trump, it is great to end the week with a little piece of good news.

This is the time of the year when Arctic buffs gather in Tromso in Norway for the annual Arctic Frontiers conference. I couldn’t make it myself this time, but have been following some of the action online, including the side-events which are often amongst the most valuable at international conferences.

Push for clean shipping

One thing that made me smile was the announcement that the famous cruise ship operator Hurtigruten had signed the Arctic Commitment, calling for a ban on the use of marine heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the Arctic.

The Clean Arctic Alliance – a coalition of environmental NGOs – is calling on the international community to sign up to the Arctic Commitment with the aim of protecting Arctic communities and ecosystems from the risks posed by the use of HFO.

The CEO of Hurtigruten, Daniel Skjeldam, signed the Arctic Commitment in Tromso.

“The use of heavy fuel oil has already been banned in the Antarctic, now it’s time to ban it in the Artic as well”, Skjeldam said. His company has chosen not to use heavy fuel oil in any of its ships.

Warming Arctic, changing world. (Svalbard, Pic: I.Quaile)

Fragile Arctic, changing world. (Svalbard, Pic: I.Quaile)

Oil spill risk in icy waters

He urged the shipping industry to be frontrunners in “promoting regulations that will secure sustainable Arctic growth”.

“An accident involving a mega ship and spill of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic should represent an environmental disaster”,  Skeldam said. There has been no shortage of experts  testifiying to that.

“If heavy fuel oil is spilled in cold Arctic waters, it will have larger consequences than anywhere else. The Arctic deserves sustainable growth and innovation, and the industry needs to move first”, the shipping executive confirms.

Polar bear, courtesy of WWF

At risk from climate change and pollution: the polar bear, courtesy of WWF

Don’t wait for a ban

Indeed. The shipping industry could make a huge difference here by taking action without waiting for legislation or restriction. With climate change speeding ahead and the Arctic struggling to cope with the rapid changes occurring as temperatures reach record highs, while powerful politicians like Presidents Trump and Putin seem more interested in exploiting the Arctic than protecting it, companies and consumers have to take on more responsibility.

In December 2016, Canada and the US announced a joint “phase down” of HFO from their respective Arctic regions. Here’s hoping things will move forward on this in spite of the current political climate.

The Clean Arctic Alliance believes a ban on HFO in the Arctic can be achieved by 2020 if governments and business demand action by the International Maritime Organization to ban the use of HFO. In the meantime, the group is encouraging the shipping industry to switch to higher quality, alternative fuels.

Christoph Wolff, Managing Director of the European Climate Foundation, a member of the Clean Arctic Alliance, says the debate on HFO is over. “Banning the use of heavy fuel oil to power Arctic shipping will not only minimize the risk of spills, but will also help reduce climate-warming emissions in the region”, he says.

Thinking positive

When I first reported from Arctic Frontiers back in 2007, there was already a heated debate going on between those who want to develop and commercially exploit the Arctic’s resources, against the background of a warming climate,  and those who want to restrict access and activity in the interests of the fragile environment and the communities who live there. I remember a discussion on the paradox of climate warming making it possible to extract more oil from the Arctic which would, in turn, cause more emissions and further melt. Shipping, too, both passenger and freight, becomes easier as the Arctic ice melts, but, in turn, causes high emissions as well as other pollution in the sensitive region.

So let’s go into the weekend with a round of applause for the tireless campaigners for a clean Arctic. It is hard for an environment journalist to be optimistic in these difficult times. But every little helps. And winning over the cruise ship industry which so many people associate with holiday expeditions into remote areas with intact nature and spectacular wildlife would be a great way to get a wider public “on board” for the voyage to protecting the icy regions of our warming planet.

Date

January 27, 2017 | 3:14 pm

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Hottest year – scary, but not for Chinese Arctic shippers?

Soon no longer just fiction?  (I.Quaile, Alaska)

Hot, hot, hotter?  (I.Quaile)

As I sit in my Bonn office between thunderstorms in a week where we reached a record 36 degrees Celsius here, I am not surprised to read that the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) sees 2016 on track to be the hottest year ever.

The WMO bases its conclusions on two separate reports from NOAA and NASA GISS.

Global temperatures have already shattered previous records for the first six months of the year. And, no, it is not just El Nino. The WMO says June 2016 was not only the 14th consecutive month of record heat, but also the 378th consecutive month with temperatures above the twentieth century average. That means we haven’t been below the average since 1984.

The extraordinary becomes the norm

In the last blog post I quoted an article about the extraordinary years becoming the normal. Here we go again.

“The El Nino event, which turned up the Earth’s thermostat, has now disappeared. Climate change, caused by heat-trapping greenhouse gases, will not. This means we face more heatwaves, more extreme rainfall and potential for higher impact tropical cyclones”, said WMO Secretary-Gerneal Petteri Taalas in a press release.

The WMO also notes the corresponding rise in CO2 concentrations:

“Carbon dioxide concentrations have passed the symbolic milestone of 400 parts per million in the atmosphere so far this year. CO2 levels vary according to the season, but the underlying trend is upwards. They showed a surprising increase for the first half of 2016, rising in June 2016 to nearly 407 ppm, 4ppm greater than June 2015”, the WMO writes.

Measuring CO2 in Ny Alesund, Svalbard, Spitzbergen

That CO2 concentration keeps going up  (Measuring station on Svalbard, Pic. Quaile)

Melting away…

So what does all this mean for our beloved Arctic?

Of course it has been experiencing the record warming even more than the rest of the planet. The WMO mentions a very early onset of the annual melting of the Greenland ice sheet and Arctic sea ice, and exceptionally low snow cover in the northern hemisphere.

“The extent of Arctic sea ice at the peak of the summer melt season now typically covers 40 percent less area than it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Arctic sea ice extent in September, the seasonal low point in the annual cycle, has been declining at a rate of 13.4 percent per decade”, says WMO.

Chinese go full-speed-ahead

Now a lot of people are very concerned about that. But presumably the Chinese shipping giant COSCO is not amongst them. The company has announced that it will be sending three cargo ships through the Arctic Ocean this summer, since global warming is making the route more viable. It will be using the Northeast Passage, which goes north of Russia. As the news agency AFP puts it, “China sees the opportunity to reshape global trade flows”, as this route can shorten journey times between Asia and Europe considerably.

The Yong Sheng merchant ship left the Chinese port Tianjin last Saturday, bound for the UK, carrying a “mixed cargo” through the Northeast Passage. It seems the ship has used the route twice in the past three years. This time, two more COSCO ships, the Tian Xi and the Xiang Yun Kou are also scheduled to navigate the passage next month.

AFP quotes the company as saying it aims to “normalize” services on the route. So, once again, the extraordinary is becoming normal? This worries me for several reasons. First, it is an indicator that this industry giant is convinced climate warming is here to stay, and illustrates that there are those who are happy to profit from it. Secondly, as discussed many times here on the Ice Blog and in my articles for DW, shipping in Arctic waters is still a very high-risk business for the environment and, of course, the humans on board the ships.

Melting ice, easier ship access

Melting ice, easier ship access (Pic: I.Quaile)

Room for dispute

Earlier this year, China’s Maritime Safety Administration published a Chinese language guide including nautical charts and descriptions of ice conditions for the other Arctic route, the Northwest Passage, which runs north of Canada. That begs the question: is this part of Canada’s waters, as Ottawa claims, or international waters?

Clearly, economic and strategic interest in the Arctic is spreading well beyond the Arctic countries as the frozen north warms.

Without wanting to be alarmist, I have to mention a comment by the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who proposed in June that European navies should coordinate patrols in Asian waters to reinforce the maritime order based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, against the background of the dispute between China and others in the South China Sea. He warned that if the laws of the sea are not respected in that region, they could also be challenged elsewhere, for instance in the Arctic.

Worrying times.

Pressure to implement Paris

Back to the WMO. Secretary-General Petteri Tallas stresses that the record-breaking warming underlines the urgent need to approve and implement the Paris Agreement and speed up the shift to renewable energy.

Aquamarine Oyster device running off Orkney

Testing clean marine energy off the coast of Scotland (Pic: I.Quaile)

(There is an encouraging story on that in my Living Planet programme this week, coming out of Finland).

But so far, remember, there have definitely NOT been enough countries ratifying to bring the agreement into effect. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders to a special event in September to deposit their instruments of ratification or accession to the Paris Agreement. Perhaps the heatwaves, storms, extreme rainfall and other “abnormal but becoming normal” events in their respective countries will persuade these politicians (especially in the countries responsible for the majority of emissions) that time is running out if we want to keep to that two-degree Celsius target (let alone the 1.5). The average temperature in the first six months of this year was already 1.3 degrees warmer than pre-industrial times. Some experts are already convinced we need to start drawing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and store them if we are to avert climate catastrophe. A daunting prospect, to say the least.

Date

July 22, 2016 | 2:19 pm

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Greenland glacier at record speed

Ilulissat 2009

Sermeq Kujalleq glacier at Ilulissat (2009) (I.Quaile)

I have been working on a story about whether the Arctic infrastructure would be able to cope with a shipping or oil spill accident, which is increasingly likely to occur as development speeds ahead. During the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, I attended an interesting workshop on the topic, where the organisers, the Arctic Institute Center for Circumpolar Security Studies, came to what their experts describe as “worrisome” conclusions. Malte Humpert, Kathrin Keil and Marc Jacobsen presented three incident scenarios involving shipping and oil exploration in the Arctic. Jacobsen’s scenario involved a giant cruise boat with 3000 people on board hitting an iceberg off the West Greenland Coast, near Ilulissat.

In 2009 I was in Ilulissat, working on radio features on climate change in Greenland. This is the Greenland of the tourist brochures, with a constantly changing panorama of icebergs floating past your hotel window – or porthole if you are on a ship. While I was there, the fragility of that beautiful glacier ice was brought home to me.

Icebergs off the coast of Ilulissat (I.Quaile)

Icebergs off the coast of Ilulissat (I.Quaile)

The Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, also still known by its Danish name “Jakobshavn Isbrae”, is the fastest flowing glacier in Greenland (or Antarctica, these two major ice sources being of key importance to global sea level). The icebergs which create the spectacle floating past the brightly coloured houses of Ilulissat, are breaking off from the glacier. Beautiful to look at, extremely worrying if you think about the background. Back in 2009, scientists were already telling me the glacier was speeding up. Now the latest research published in The Cryosphere (the journal of the European Geosciences Union) confirms that the summer flow of the ice mass has reached a record speed. The scientists, from the University of Washington in Seattle and the German Aerospace Center DLR, say the speeding up in 2013 was 30 to 50 percent higher than previous summers. The scientists analysed satellite images taken every 11 days from early 2009 to spring 2013. Satellite technology plays a key role in observing the ice. Two German radar satellites TerraSAR-X und TanDEM-X provide high resolution data that facilitates precise calculations, according to DLR. One of the authors, Dana Floricioiu from the DLR Earth Observation Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, told journalists it had been striking to see how much the glacier was changing within a very short time.

The researchers found that the glacier’s average speed peaked at 46 metres per day during the summer of 2012. This is the fastest ever recorded for a glacier in Greenland or Antarctica. The big surges take place in summer, but the researchers say the average annual speed of the glacier over the last two years is almost three times what was measured in the 1990s. It is retreating by around 17 kilometres per year. The scientists say these speeds were achieved “as the glacier terminus appears to have retreated to the bottom of an over-deepened basin with a depth of around 1300 m below sea level. The terminus is likely to reach the deepest section of the trough within a few decades, after which it could rapidly retreat to the shallower regions some  50 km farther upstream, potentially by the end of this century”.

The huge volume of ice going into the sea from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier is already influencing sea level. The glacier drains around 6 percent of the massive Greenland ice sheet Scientists estimate it added about 1 millimetre to global sea levels from 2000 to 2010. The increased speed of the discharge will exacerbate this further.Badnews for people in low-lying coastal areas around the globe. And this is not the only Greenland glacier melting increasingly.

Summer night in Ilulissat

Summer night in Ilulissat

Coming back to the subject of disaster-preparedness – this glacier is thought to be the source of the iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912. The Arctic Institute’s scenario indicates that an accident like the “Costa Concordia”, which happened in an easily accessible region with no ice or dangerous weather conditions, would have devastating consequences if it happened, say, off the coast of Ilulissat. Search and rescue, accommodation and medical treatment, lack of transport facilities, poor communications infrastructure, no adequate oil spill response technology for icy waters…. food for thought for companies looking to profit from the changing climate of the Arctic – and the governments that should be responsible for protecting humans, wildlife and that beautiful but fragile Arctic ecosystem.

Photo gallery: Greenland the Ice Island

Date

February 6, 2014 | 12:43 pm

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Mining fears decide Greenland vote

Greenland ice wall

Greenland’s massive  ice sheet, photographed 2009

Interesting times for the “ice island“. The Greenlanders have voted for a change of government amidst concern that the incumbent government was opening the country too fast to foreign mining companies.

Alequa Hammond’s Siumit party won 42 percent of the votes, up from 26.5 percent. Kuupik Kleists’ Inuit Ataquatigiit took 34.4 percent compared to 43.7 last time. Hammond, who would be the first woman prime minister of Greenland if she successfully forms a coalition with a smaller party, campaigned on a pledge to tax foreign mining companies.

Climate change is opening up opportunities for the mining of rare earth and other raw materials in Greenland, as well as oil and gas exploration. I visited the island in 2009 to report on the effects of climate change. At that time, I could already sense the dichotomy between the desire to gain revenue from mining to fund ultimate independence from Denmark on the one hand, and concern that the changing climate was making traditional Inuit lifestyles more difficult and potentially opening the way for environmentally harmful commercial activities on the other.

Hammond, an Inuit woman who was educated in Montreal before returning to Greenland and working in tourism, told the online edition of the weekly newspaper Sermitsiaq “Too much secrecy surrounding mining projects and problems in the fishery sector, as well as a lack of construction outside Nuuk (the capital), determined the outcome”. There had been a lot of concern about proposals being discussed for a company to bring 2,000 Chinese workers to the island, with a population of just 57,000, to set up a mining venture. China is becoming increasingly interested in Greenland and the Arctic as a whole, both because of its rich mineral resources and the opening of faster shipping routes between Asia and Europe and North America.

It remains to be seen to what extent protecting the environment will have priority over economic considerations as Greenland develops further.

The Arctic Council will be meeting in Kiruna, Sweden in May, the last meeting before Canada takes over the chair. China’s application for observer status will be on the agenda. Hammond says she could support the application but would take a more critical look at Chinese investments.

Interesting times ahead. Watch this space. Related stories to catch up with:

Polar ice sheets melting faster than ever

Business opportunities boom in the Arctic

Sea levels rising faster than expected

China’s Arctic ambitions spark concern

Scientists raise Greenland climate threat

Climate change visible on Greenland

Greenland, Ice Island in Pictures

Date

March 14, 2013 | 11:33 am

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China and the Arctic – “a public area, just like the moon?

ship in icebergs off Spitsbergen by Irene Quaile

Shipping is already increasing in Arctic waters. I took this one off the coast of Spitsbergen

Now who could come up with a statement like that? It has to come from a country showing a growing interest in the region although it has no Arctic territory. The Chinese premier Wen Jiabao is coming to Europe tomorrow and the Arctic is to be a key focus of his trip. He’ll be spending eight days visiting Iceland, Sweden, Poland and Germany.

There are two main reasons for the Chinese interest: energy, and shipping routes. China is the world’s biggest consumer of energy and greatly interested in the resources becoming more easily accessible through climate change. The retreat of the sea ice is also opening up new routes for shipping in summer, which could cut the sea voyage between Shanghai and northern Europe by around 6,400 km. So there are difficult times ahead for those who want to protect the sensitive Arctic environment and wildlife from increasing traffic and risky exploration for oil, gas and minerals. I wrote about this some time ago, and it’s certainly going to keep coming up:

Arctic Regions Eye Nation’s Potential

 

 

Date

April 19, 2012 | 1:08 pm

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