Hakai Magazine: The Race for Arctic Oil (infographic)

Oil exploration began in the Arctic almost a century ago, long before the words “climate” and “change” were paired with “human induced” and the ushering in of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Paradoxically, even as the science emerged, the world’s reliance on oil grew—globally, we use about 35 billion barrels of oil each year.

The sea ice melts. Oil prices rise. The sea ice melts. Oil prices fall. The sea ice melts. There’s an oil glut. The sea ice melts. There’s an oil shortage. And the sea ice melts, creating better conditions for building remote oil platforms in the frigid waters and for land-based drilling operations that can take advantage of newly-thawed shipping routes.

Read more here. Research by Jimmy Thomson and Ami Kingdon; text by Jude Isabella; illustration by Mark Garrison.

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Hakai Magazine: Epishelf Lakes – an Ecosystem Facing Extinction

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Once upon a time, northern Canada harboured a remarkable kind of freshwater lake, a distinct glacial environment found nowhere else in the Northern Hemisphere. In these special freshwater lakes, known as epishelf lakes, life thrived, effectively cut off from the rest of the world. Many of these hidden lakes formed between 4,000 and 800 years ago. But now there’s just one left, and it won’t last long.

“I would be surprised if the lake lasted for more than a decade,” says physical geographer Derek Mueller. “It could go really at any time.”

Keep reading here

American scientists unearth lost 1960s polar satellite images worth billions

David Gallaher was eight years old in 1964, watching satellites twinkling high overhead. That year, the first American to orbit the planet left NASA, the Soviets put the first multi-person crew in orbit, and one tiny satellite, Nimbus 2, was taking grainy black-and-white images of the entire surface of the planet.

Seventeen years before the start of what we know as the “modern satellite record” of sea ice, Nimbus series satellites were snapping images that would turn up on two huge pallets in Gallaher’s office in Colorado 50 years later.

“Holy crap,” Gallaher recalls thinking when he saw the daunting stack of canisters. “We took one box and looked at it, and said, ‘Is this even doable?’”

Read more here.

Note: This story was retweeted by CBC Quirks & Quarks, Chris Hadfield and Phil Plait, scored over 2000 points on Reddit, and was picked up by IB Times, The Verge, and others. It also led to my first story in National Geographic.

Globe and Mail: A vacation that can make a difference

This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail

A performer wearing her traditional amauti, or woman's coat, in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
A performer wearing her traditional amauti, or woman’s coat, in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut

Cruising into Pond Inlet is a memorable experience. Having left Greenland’s signature blood-red houses and soaring mountains 450 nautical miles (832.5 kilometres) behind us, Baffin Island’s majestic steep-walled fjords give way to rolling tundra that almost disguises the tiny hamlet of Pond Inlet. Dirt roads lead to nondescript houses; the town’s most prominent features are its hulking white fuel tanks and its name written in pale stones on the hill above.

The Akademik Ioffe is dropping anchor when a passenger asks, doubtfully, “Do people buy things here?”

The answer is yes. Artisans in Pond Inlet carve scenes of hunters stalking their prey into caribou antlers. They sew seal skins into beautiful mittens trimmed with fox fur. They whittle narwhal tusks down to tiny versions of the narwhals themselves.

Shopping might seem like a strange thing to think about when visiting the furthest reaches of our country, but for some travellers, the opportunity to bring home such rare artifacts is part of the allure. While it might seem frivolous, this is serious business: Their desire – and ability – to bring home pricey souvenirs is a vital part of the Arctic economy. But finding ways to integrate cultural practices into income opportunities is still a delicate balancing act this far north.

That day, passengers bought $4,000 in crafts from the visitors centre, according to the manager, Timothy Akoomalik. That’s about average, but the numbers can be deceiving. With carvings going for several hundred dollars – a caribou rack-turned-cribbage board was snapped up for $250 – a few thousand represents only a handful of items. The profits are entirely reinvested into buying more art to sell, with about 75 per cent of the selling price going to the artists.

Some artisans strike off on their own in the hopes of pocketing a larger share. Darlene Simonie, a young Inuit mother, was outside the centre trying to sell a 1.6-metre-long, pure white narwhal tusk for $1,000 to French passengers from another ship.

Money also finds subtler ways into the community. Most cruise ships visiting Pond Inlet pay landing fees and hire guides to give tours, although there is no requirement to do so; some simply drop anchor and come ashore. Colin Saunders, the hamlet’s community development officer, says that a mandatory $2,200 fee will be imposed starting this summer. In our case, the tour closed with a cultural show at the new community centre. Abbie Angetsiak was one of the performers, throat singing and performing traditional songs and dances with her cousins and young children.

“I love performing,” says Angetsiak, who has been doing so for 10 years. Pulling off her traditional amauti, she explains that the $100 she makes for each show supplements her income while she perfects her English at the community learning centre.

With the cruise season beginning to lengthen because of perennially receding sea ice, Arctic communities such as Pond Inlet are discussing how far to go to attract ships. Some hunters complain that they scare off the animals; others become upset when outsiders refuse to play by local rules.

The French-flagged vessel, for example, would be there for two days without paying a landing fee, hiring tour guides or setting up a cultural show. They would also run the stores out of milk and produce. Laurielle Penny, director of Worldwide Quest, the tour company that chartered the Akademik Ioffe, takes a hard line on this kind of behaviour.

“I think they should be driven away with harpoons, if necessary,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a tribute to northern communities, quite frankly, that they even put up with it. … You try to land a ship like that in the Mediterranean … they would never be allowed.”

Most companies do make an effort to have a positive impact. But that means making tough decisions on what to do and where to go. Communities that emphasize cultural development and tourism naturally end up being rewarded with more visits, as well as bonuses such as crates of new sports equipment. With the cruise season limited by Mother Nature, other potential ports such as Kugluktuk and Resolute miss out.

On the final trip across the Davis Strait, we travel back down the Greenland coast, and the contrast between the two countries becomes stark. Greenland’s riches of shrimp, cod and halibut provide a good income for its people, and the Danish government subsidizes the economy to the tune of around $12,000 a person. The result is better infrastructure and a vastly different shopping experience. The passengers revel in Greenland’s souvenir bonanza: Artist co-ops sell crafts in quantity and variety unmatched anywhere in the Canadian Arctic.

I pick up some gifts for friends at a glitzy airport shop: sealskin earrings, muskox-wool bracelets and a CD of modern Greenlandic rock. As we fly back over Baffin Island I look down and wonder if Simonie has sold her tusk yet.

The writer worked as a naturalist and zodiac driver aboard the Akademik Ioffe. Worldwide Quest did not review or approve this article.

Backgrounder: the Arctic Council

Canada assumes the chair of the Arctic Council this week. So here's a photo of a bear eating a seal. Photo: me
Canada assumes the chair of the Arctic Council this week. So here’s a photo of a bear eating a seal. Photo: me

This post originally appeared on the Canadian Geographic blog.

The Northwest Passage was one of the most coveted geographical prizes of the 19th century. Dozens of ships attempted to find it, and most, like the doomed Franklin expedition, failed. Times have changed, however; ever-growing numbers of cruise ships and freighters make the transit each year with the benefit of modern charts, satellite navigation and thinning ice.

This week, Canada is taking the reins of the Arctic Council as the Northwest Passage literally and figuratively heats up. Canada claims rights to the route, although that has been disputed by other nations – but that is far from the only disputed claim in the Arctic. Debates over mineral rights, territorial boundaries and Aboriginal rights have been ongoing for centuries.

In order to provide a forum for some of these discussions, the Arctic Council was established over the course of the 1990s and includes all countries with territory in the Arctic: Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland and Denmark (which represents its dependencies in Greenland and the Faroe Islands). Canada served as the first chair of the Council from 1996-1998.

The work of the Arctic Council

Most of the decisions made at the Arctic Council never become legally binding treaties. To date, only one document has become binding for the member states: a treaty on search-and-rescue. But that isn’t to say that the work the Council does is unimportant; it is one of the few bodies in the world focused on the serious environmental, economic and social issues facing the Arctic and its people, and the world’s only circumpolar political forum.

In the last two years, the chairmanship has been held by Sweden. In last year’s meeting in Stockholm, working groups reported on oil spill preparedness and climate change adaptation, and similar reports are expected at the Kiruna ministers’ meeting. Five of the six current working groups are reporting on issues of environmental importance, from heavy metal contamination to wildlife conservation.

On top of these ongoing issues, Canada’s incoming chairperson, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, has announced plans to integrate industry interests into the workings of the council.

New observers

The Arctic Council is structured to allow various degree of involvement for nations
and groups without Arctic territory. Some indigenous groups are considered “permanent participants,” meaning that they have the right to consultation in relation to the council’s negotiations and decisions and can address the council and raise points of order. Observer nations, permanent or ad-hoc, are allowed to attend meetings and join working groups. Even some nongovernmental groups, such as the United Nations Development Programme and the International Red Cross, have observer status.

However, with the growing international interest in the North, some ad-hoc observer nations are seeking a bigger role. China and the EU have requested permanent observer status, along with India, Japan, Italy, Singapore, Mongolia and South Korea. Already, six European nations are permanent observers. To achieve this status, permanent observers are required to recognize the rights of Arctic nations on the council’s terms; this includes recognizing their sovereignty in the Arctic, the rights of indigenous peoples and the role of the Arctic Council as an authority. The member states will decide on whether to grant observer status to these countries at this week’s meeting in Kiruna, Sweden; Canada and Russia have already expressed a reluctance to give the non-Arctic states a bigger role.

Snowshoe hares lose camouflage as climate warms

This is my new post on the Canadian Geographic blog. To check it out in its own natural habitat, click here

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At the start of the war in Afghanistan, Canadian troops drew international ridicule when they showed up in the desert equipped with green camouflage designed for forests. Their gear, intended to make the troops blend in with their surroundings, did just the opposite, and brown camouflage uniforms were hastily procured.

According to a new study published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Canadian army may not be alone. Some mammals’ camouflage is starting to malfunction as the snow disappears faster than it should each spring and takes longer to appear in the fall. Most notably, snowshoe hares — known for their striking white winter coats and brown summer coats — are struggling to adapt to the changing background colour of their environment.

Under the conditions in which the hares’ camouflage evolved, these animals shed their white winter coats as the snow disappears. But as the timing of seasons strays from historical trends, evolution can’t keep up, and the hares are standing out like sore thumbs. For an animal low on the food chain, this means falling prey more easily.

L. Scott Mills, the primary investigator in the recent University of Montana study, says that this study is just the beginning. Soon other animals, including weasels, foxes and even bird species such as the ptarmigan, could be studied for the same effects.

“There’s no reason that what we find in hares wouldn’t apply to other animals,” he says.

But the pressure to adapt may be higher in a “yummy” animal like a snowshoe hare than in a top predator like the Arctic fox.

“Based on an evolutionary principle called the life-dinner principle, you expect the pressure to adapt to be lower when the consequence of failure is that (the animals) miss a meal rather than die,” he explains.

Over the next few months, Mills’s team will sort through the data to find out whether the hares’ inability to camouflage themselves is costing them their pelts or whether they are able to adapt their behaviour to find other ways of hiding.

“Animals might be able to look down at themselves, see that they aren’t camouflaged and adapt their behaviour,” says Mills. “They might move to a snowy patch or prepare to run away or hide in some bushes.”

One way or another, camouflage strategies will likely be under more and more pressure to adapt over the coming century. According to the study, the number of days of snow cover in western Montana — the location of the study — is predicted to decrease by between 40 and 69 days per year.

The Big Melt and its Global Implications

First published (with some revisions) by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies in their quarterly magazine, Wall Papers. Check it out in pretty, glossy format here.

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Photo by Jimmy Thomson

The Arctic Ocean is in the midst of major climatic change, with its once robust sea-ice cover visibly retrenching more and more every year.  As that ice melts, chemistry and circulation patterns are shifting, and scientists are just beginning to understand how serious the consequences may be for the rest of the world’s oceans.

“We have a marine arctic that is not simply passive – it will kick back,” warned Eddie Carmack, Senior Research Scientist Emeritus at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “It is to our own good to explore effects that might lead to regime changes.”

Dr. Carmack was part of a leading group of Arctic scientists taking part in a 3-day workshop titled, “An Interdisciplinary Assessment of Climate Change Impacts on the Arctic Ocean,” held at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies in May 2012.  The workshop was envisioned by UBC professors Philippe Tortell and Roger Francois as a way to discuss strategies for monitoring the Arctic Ocean that take into account the importance of both terrestrial and oceanic fields of scientific research, and the unexpected rapid pace of changes occurring in the Arctic.

Dr. Carmack described the rapid pace this way.  In 2007, he took to the sea in the “Canada’s Three Oceans” project, traveling by icebreaker along the entire coast of Canada in order to establish a baseline for future effect of climate change. This baseline would be revisited in 2050, or so went the original plan. “It’s changing so fast,” he said, “there are things they can already say.”  Climate change impacts, such as increased stratification, shifts in population structure among plankton and bacteria, and ocean acidification are already becoming apparent in the Arctic.

Dr. Carmack laid out an extremely complex set of findings presented in a series of diagrams that showed how circulations between the world’s oceans interact, and argued that more needs to be explored regarding the biogeochemical distributions in the oceans in order to be able to predict what cascade effects and unintended consequences many of these changes might have. “There is a danger in waiting too long to begin new policies,” he warned.

In addition to Dr. Carmack, researchers traveled from all over the world, covering everything from glacier melt in Greenland to trace metals in estuarine systems in Russia to warming experiments in the Canadian tundra.  Part of the impetus for the workshop was to underscore the importance and cooperation around the new GEOTraces initiative, a monitoring system set up to better understand the changes. With international participation from over 30 nations, GEOTraces collects information on trace metals in the world’s oceans, which can be limiting factors for biological productivity, sources of contamination, or indicators of past and present climate change. The collection of this data requires ship charters, international permits, and a lot of money: some working groups during the conference were therefore devoted to these difficulties facing researchers.

Many of the researchers pointed out, like Dr. Carmack did, that the Arctic is “not just about bears, pteropods, and seals, it’s about the people.” To that end, the workshop also featured a public panel, appropriately titled, “The Big Melt” at the Vancouver Aquarium. Moderated by former Yukon premier Tony Penikett, the panel discussion featured Dr. Carmack alongside UBC Professors Michael Byers from Political Science and Candis Callison from the School of Journalism. All of the panelists, each coming from a different angle, nevertheless had much in the way of common ground: the need for more international cooperation, inclusion of northern communities, and proper communication of these issues to the public were all expressed.

According to Dr. Callison, science can often only be expressed to the public by portraying it in human terms.

“Facts and information become meaningful when they intersect with ethical and moral codes,” she explained. “After listening to an Inuit person talk about changes they’ve witnessed, passing climate change as a somehow normal and natural occurrence is not possible.”

Encouraging interaction between scientists from a diversity of nations, in conferences such as this one, is a valuable part of the process of bringing the world’s northern nations together to address the multitude of changes occurring in the Arctic.

As Dr. Byers noted, “an organization is only as important as the people in the room.” Conferences like this are a vital step in continuing to bring important people into the room to advance the international dialogue regarding arctic climate change, and the international gathering was representative of the way forward in understanding its future impacts.