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An Ice-Free Arctic
Dr. Curt Stager, 4/22/2011

Adapted from Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth by Curt Stager. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

In June 2007, Russian marine geologists returned from studying the Lomonosov Ridge, a narrow fence of faulted seabed that splits the deep central basin of the Arctic Ocean between Siberia and Greenland. Normally, such an expedition would go unnoticed by the public, but this one ignited a political firestorm.

The flash point was the geologists' claim that the ridge is, geologically speaking, a direct extension of the Russian mainland. In an instant, long-standing perceptions of the North Pole as being a landless realm of floating ice evaporated. There's plenty of land up there after all; it's just that it lies under several vertical miles of frigid seawater.

Two months later, a Russian mini-sub took territorial disputes to new heights – or depths – by planting a rust-proof titanium flag on the sea floor beneath the Pole. Was it merely a prank, or did it amount to claiming the top of the world along with roughly half of the Arctic Ocean bottom? Canada and Denmark were neither amused nor convinced; the other end of the Lomonosov ridge joins their own territories of Ellesmere and Greenland. At the time of this writing, the Russian claim still awaits confirmation or rejection by the United Nations, which faces a lengthening list of similar territorial dust-ups.

That so many parties are caught up in a polar land grab attests to the reality and importance of climate-driven changes in the Arctic. Some may still deny that global warming is upon us, but they're certainly not among those who are now maneuvering to cash in on it. The whole situation seems rather unfair, though. Most of the nations that are slated to reap the greatest rewards from this New North are already among the world's wealthiest, and they're also among the carbon-emitters who are most responsible for these changes to begin with.

The bedrock north of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories represents one of the richest mineral deposits on Earth. The Ekati and Diavik mines already produce more than 10 percent of the world's natural gem-quality diamonds and even as northern access routes that depend on stable permafrost and lake ice crossings liquify, engineers and industrialists are envisioning a future spiderweb of new dry-land roads and tracks to connect new mines to new marine ports. Both Canada and Russia are preparing for further intensification of a diamond-driven "cold rush" once the roads can support it, and uranium miners in Nunavut are poised to spark a northern "glow rush."

Between a tenth and a third of the world’s untapped oil reserves are thought to lie in the Arctic, particularly on the broad, shallow continental shelves. North America's largest oil fields lie in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, huge quantities of gas and coal underlie the North Slope, and Canada has major reserves in the Mackenzie Delta and elsewhere in the high Arctic. Russia claims valuable deposits along its Siberian shores; close to three quarters of its oil and gas already come from its Arctic territories. Reliable open water routes such as the once-fabled Northwest Passage will make those resources more accessible and profitable. They will also increase the risk of oil spills, which could be horrendously difficult to clean up if the black goo slips beyond reach under what remains of the floating ice.

The new fossil fuel bonanza could also drive the sum of our greenhouse gas emissions even higher than it already is, but convincing people to shut those wells down in order to stop the climatic changes that bring them so much wealth will be difficult.

Ironically, we who create this new world simply by burning our fossil fuels will also cause its demise. As atmospheric CO2 concentrations finally sink back closer to today's levels thousands of years from now, the Arctic Ocean will begin to freeze over again. But when? Sediment cores from the Arctic Ocean reveal the first appearance of ice-loving algae in layers that date back to 47 million years ago. Carbon dioxide levels at the time were three times higher than today, having fallen from even higher concentrations that prevailed during an earlier, natural warm period, so perhaps that represents a threshold for Arctic ice formation in the darkness of winter. In that case, the slow recovery from an extreme carbon emissions scenario might permit winter sea ice to re-form between 2000 and 5000 years from now. On the other hand, if we switch to carbon-free energy sources as soon as possible, the relatively moderate warming that results might not prevent winter ice at all.

But keeping the Arctic ice cap frozen in summer will be another matter. Permanent icing of the pole began 14-10 million years ago, when CO2 concentrations had fallen low enough to be similar to those of today. If we take that as a benchmark, then a relatively moderate warming scenario could delay year-round sea ice cover until some time between 50,000 and 100,000 AD, and an extreme scenario might delay it for half a million years.

From our perspective in a time period when solid ice cover is still considered to be a normal feature of the Arctic Ocean, it is easy to think of the temporary opening of the ice cap as a shocking environmental wound inflicted by our carbon pollution. But for people who will grow up accustomed to ice-free conditions in the deep future, the situation will probably seem quite different. Far out on the fading tail of the carbon pollution curve, they may well shudder at the incremental shrinkage of the polar sea lanes and the gradual demise, species by species, of what will by then have become familiar, even ancient marine ecosystems. Those ecosystems will have become unique in their own right, having developed in the context of the future Arctic's unique combination of open waters and long, alternating stretches of seasonal darkness and light. Traditional native skills of living on an ice-bound sea may also be long lost to history by then, so life in a fully frozen North might seem undesirable, if not impossible, even to the descendants of today's seal and whale hunters.

And later still, perhaps some time close to 100,000 AD if we follow a relatively moderate scenario or several times later than that in a more extreme case, the polar seas will lie encased once more in a glassy tomb. The once-thriving Arctic fishery will fade, along with the Northwest Passage, back into the realm of dreams. And great white bears, if any remain then, may once more wander the spring snow-drifts, pressure ridges, and floes in search of seal blubber.

One can only hope that the seals will also be there to share the floating ice with them if they ever do return.

About the Author

Curt Stager is an ecologist, paleoclimatologist, and science journalist with a Ph.D. in biology and geology from Duke University (1985). He has published over three dozen peer-reviewed articles in major journals including Science and Quaternary Research, and has written extensively for general audiences in periodicals such as National Geographic and Adirondack Life. Since 1990, he has also researched and co-hosted Natural Selections, a weekly science program on North Country Public Radio that is syndicated internationally, and has toured widely to offer presentations on his research to audiences ranging, as one colleague put it, “from middle-schoolers to formal scholars.” He currently teaches at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, and holds a research associate post at the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute, where he continues to investigate the long-term history of climate in Africa, South America, the polar regions, and the northeastern United States. He is author of Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth published in 2011 by Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.


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