Money and Methane in a Melting Arctic

The author of today's post, Sheryl Canter, is an Online Writer and Editorial Manager at Environmental Defense.

If you had any doubts that the globe is warming and the Arctic is melting, this month's flag incident should put them to rest. A Russian submarine dove to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean to plant a flag in the seabed. Why? There's oil and gas in the Arctic seabed, which is now becoming accessible due to global warming.

Russia is not the only country vying for Arctic rights. Canada and Denmark are arguing about rights to the Northwest Passage, and the U.S. is getting into the act as well. But unfortunately, more than just oil and gas will be exposed as the Arctic melts.

Frozen soils in places like Siberia contain vast amounts of organic matter, built up as plants grew, died, and then froze instead of decomposing. If the permafrost thaws, the organic matter will start to decompose, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. The feedback effect from the additional greenhouse gases would greatly accelerate global warming.

We're at the cusp of a dangerous tipping point.

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5 Comments

  1. ccr9405
    Posted August 13, 2007 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    It would greatly aid the cause of clarity to know what Sheryl Canter means by "accessible" in this piece, or what is meant by the US "getting into the act", or the "feedback effect". This kind of imprecise language, an evident cluelessness about oil and gas exploitation, the use of such (again) meaningless phrases as "tipping point" leads one to question the judgment of Environmental Defense in posting this claptrap on its web site. By the way, the only doubt put to rest by the Russians planting a flag on the arctic seabed is that they have at least one working submarine–unless of course the whole exercise was staged in a movie studio with a set left over from "The Day After Tomorrowski".

  2. Posted August 13, 2007 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    "Accessible" means that where there used to be so much ice you could not get a ship through even in summer, now the ice is melted enough that you can get ships through.

    "Getting in the act" means that the U.S. is also sending ships into the area to claim land as its own. Many countries are doing this now.

    A "feedback effect" is when the effect of something causes an amplification of the effect. In this case, warming the Arctic a little causes the release of greenhouse gases that greatly accelerate the warming effect.

    For a description of what the "tipping point" is and how it is determined, see Bill's previous post "How Warm is Too Warm".

    If you have any other question, please don't hesitate to ask.

  3. ccr9405
    Posted August 14, 2007 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the clarification. Is accessibility why the Russians are preparing an icebreaker to go in to drill in the area? Are you aware of the complexities involved in extracting and shipping oil from this area? Could you provide evidence that the US is "sending ships into the area (what area, by the way?) to claim land as its own"? That would indeed be a stretch of US coastal waters. Notions of "feedback effect" and "tipping point" are just nonsense, have absolutely no basis in science, and are conceptually lacking in rigor, not to mention constituting jargon in order to sound more "scientific". Where exactly is the "cusp" of a "tipping point"? It is really impossible to conduct a discussion on the basis of vague language, but then this isn't a discussion, is it?

  4. Posted August 14, 2007 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    In the past, even ships with ice breakers could not get into this area in summer. The latest studies indicate that the Arctic could be virtually ice-free in summer by 2020.

  5. jmsthurber
    Posted August 19, 2007 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    A few points from an oil and gas perspective:

    The breakup of arctic ice would probably not facilitate the development of offshore hydrocarbons. If anything, it would complicate it. Offshore drilling in the arctic is typically done in winter, from ice islands. An extended summer thaw would greatly shorten the operational window.

    It is doubtful that the objective of the territorial claims is for mineral rights in the polar region itself, due both to the tremendous technical obstacles to developing reserves in the region, the very speculative nature of the mineral potential of the region far from the mainlands, and the very questionable validity of such unilateral claims.

    The objective of the claims is more likely to reinforce the territorial claims of the various nations to the shelf regions nearer to their respective landmasses. Some portions of the areas adjacent to the landmasses are quite prospective. They have largely not been developed to date because of the high costs involved.

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