Barrow Strait
In Barrow Strait, near the Canadian village of Resolute, Cloud Nine encountered dense pack ice that could trap and sink even a larger vessel. The crew were forced to turn back to ensure their survival. Photograph: David Thoreson

Leonardo Di Caprio is the latest person to remind us about the most urgent threat to humanity and it is becoming more than evident that climate change is not a myth, but a detrimental reality. In January 2016, because of unusually high air temperatures over the Arctic Ocean, the Arctic sea ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record. The recent reports read that the warming of the poles is leading to ice thawing rapidly which makes navigation, open ocean trade and exploration of this “resource frontier” more opportune along with a significant increase in the environmental challenges like black carbon pollution, or soot, and oil spill risks. Climate change for the indigenous people of the Arctic is not merely dramatic changes to their native environment, but is turning steadily into a human rights issue. The ice thawing and increasing water levels are displacing entire villages, altering traditional hunting practices by masking hunting trails and contributing to the decline of caribou herds, for example. Furthermore, sea ice melting means less sunlight is reflected back into space and more heat is absorbed by the dark ocean coupled with an increase in carbon emissions, as delicately stored methane is released from the permafrost, which leads to more warming, more glacial melt, more sea level rise and other climatic disruptions.

What the penguin in Happy Feet told the world years ago, is growing to become the biggest threat to the pristine Arctic waters. Industrial fishing is now possible because of climate change and is placing the ecosystem at danger as it is encroaching into the last remaining virgin waters that have never been fished in before. This is also causing many vulnerable species to migrate from the region. This is significant in the Norwegian Barents Sea and Canada’s East Coast right now.

The reason to stress on the Arctic ice melting is because there are 4 million permanent settlements of indigenous people who are being dramatically affected by the environmental alterations, unlike in the Antarctic, which has no permanent human settlements and where the issues are predominantly affecting the flora and fauna. The ice coverage area in Arctic has been reduced by over 40% since 1980 as measured from satellite data, which is a loss of three quarters of its ice.

So the issue at hand which needs immediate redressal is that man made global warming due to CO2 emissions is melting sea ice, and is giving room to more navigational activities, thereby keeping the famed north west corridor open to more industrial fishing and other explorative navigational operations which are beneficial to big corporates indulging in fishery and exploring new cost effective fuel and offshore oilfields. The shipping industry has been keen on exploiting this Northern sea route because it is the shortest corridor between Europe and Asia.

It is evident that climate change is a harsh reality and so is the fact that the circumpolar countries of the Arctic Council and other observer nations are aiming to get a piece of this virgin resource rich part of the world, in order to enhance their economic interest in the backdrop of environmental conservation. Leaders of the world came to together in the Paris Climate Change summit to show solidarity in their concern for the growing hazardous effects of climate change and vowed to reduce their respective carbon footprint and turn to alternate use of renewable resources. But the question arises as to how the disparity between developing and developed countries would be bridged when the developed countries like US and Canada which top the list of countries emitting highest amount of greenhouse gases, expect the developing countries like India to stall their development agendas to contribute to world preservation. PM Modi however, has re iterated that India is cooperative to decreasing the impacts of climate change and promote sustainable development.

In the issue concerning the Arctic climate change, India does have a role to play as it is given an observer status in the Arctic Council and investing in research assets like a polar vessel and setting up more science projects in the pole could help the country have a better say in the Council and help in engineering more sustainable models of development.

Shot at the same place as the above photo from the 1994 expedition, this 2007 photo clearly shows open water where there should be close and dangerous ice pack. Photograph: David Thoreson

Since the 15th century, explorers have sought to navigate the Northwest Passage—a shortcut from Europe to Asia that wouldn’t require sailing around the southern extremes of Africa or South America. Many have died pursuing this unapproachable challenge. However, over the past five years the number of cargo and cruise ships, tankers and others crossing the Passage has climbed to 117. In 2010, Canada imposed shipping regulations on seafarers going through the Passage, but the United States and the European Union do not recognize Canada’s ownership of the waterway, considering it international waters. On February 9, 2016 Russia made  a revised application for a vast swathe of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean, to include the whole of the Arctic sector adjacent to its shores in its exclusive economic zone. Russia already submitted a claim to expand its economic zone in the Arctic in 2001, but it was turned down for lack of evidence. These instances show that, there is a battle for the exploitation of the Arctic.

In conclusion, the ice thawing at an alarming rate has put the danger of climate change and global warming on the radar because as long as the Arctic has its ice cover intact, it’s ecosystem is not threatened. It can be argued both ways, for the ice free waters could be used for productive and scientific navigation which is regulated by treaties, however one cannot turn a blind eye to the devastating contingency of an oil spill like in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, dangerous storms, detrimental effects on the polar bears, walruses and other living beings of the ecosystem. One cannot advocate that this is pro-development either because the indigenous people may not always benefit from development projects. For example, Sweden’s Saami people have been battling plans by Britain’s Beowulf Mining to develop their reindeer herding territory.

The previous year also saw average global temperatures rise one degree Celsius—but by three degrees in the Arctic. Anyone who still denies climate change as a myth is living with their heads underground and every country must see the global responsibility on its shoulder and must make an honest attempt at aiming for sustainable development and devising plans to use alternative renewable energy and reduce its greenhouse emissions.

Blog article contributed by Swetha Janakiraman


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