Canada’s Arctic in the crucible

There are many different visions of the Arctic. There is Stephen Harper’s annual summer trip with its proclamations of “use it or lose it.” Yet, his promises for deep sea ports, ice breakers, and new research stations are now more noted as absent than fulfilled.

For example, the ice-breakers were promised in 2005 and again in 2008, and have been delayed once again. China, with no Arctic coastline at all, now has icebreakers in Canada’s waters while our Coast Guard’s Amundsen is in dry dock.

The construction of the deepwater port naval port in Nanisivik promised in 2007 has yet to be begun, despite promises it would begin two years ago. Also two years ago, the Prime Minister announced a major new satellite project, the Radarstat Constellation Mission. It now appears to be mired in budgetary delays.

In one of the more recent bizarre announcements, Stephen Harper promised the creation of a new Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) to be built in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. It was first pledged in the 2007 Speech from the Throne claiming the government would “build a world-class Arctic research station that will be on the cutting edge of Arctic issues, including environmental science and resource development.”

It is bizarre because at the same time that the Harper Conservatives are pledging millions to build a new research facility from the ground up, they are shutting down the internationally renowned PEARL (Polar Environmental and Atmospheric Research Laboratory). PEARL recently had $10-million invested in state of the art equipment to monitor ozone depletion and the build up of greenhouse gases. Closing it down is a scandal.

Part of Harper’s vision is clearly the exploitation of fossil fuel resources in the Arctic. Last spring, licences were opened up to start the planning for prospecting and exploration to tap into the oil and gas now increasingly accessible as the ice shrinks.

A quite different view of the Arctic comes from the scientific community. The Arctic faces new pressures for resource exploitation, from fisheries to oil and gas. Far from being an economic bonanza, the rapidly disappearing summer ice is a disaster. On Aug. 26, we reached an all-time loss of Arctic Sea ice. The melt represents a loss of more than 40 per cent of summer ice extent in the past decade alone. The melting of Arctic ice had been an anticipated climate change impact for decades, but the pace at which the ice is melting exceeds earlier projections. The explanation lies in the impact of positive feed-back loops. The loss of ice compromises the albedo effect, a cooling effect. The white ice bounces the sun’s heat back to space, whereas the dark ocean water absorbs it, speeding the warming. Less ice equals warmer waters, melting more ice.

The loss of Arctic ice has devastating impacts on the entire planet. Research at Rutgers University identified the mechanism by which the melting Arctic is impacting areas far to the south through increasingly serious extreme weather events. It turns out the difference between Arctic cold and Equatorial heat has kept the jet stream moving fast and relatively horizontally over mid-latitudes.

With the warming Arctic, the difference has gone wobbly and so has the jet stream. Fires, floods, and droughts have increased globally as the jet stream slows down due to a warming Arctic. Moving more slowly it lies in lazy loops, leaving high pressure and low pressure zones in place for unusually long periods of time. It is too early to diagnose the causes of the ferocity of Hurricane Sandy, but clearly the melting of the Arctic is implicated.

Yet, on the Prime Minister’s Arctic visits, climate change is never mentioned. Of course, moving to open up the Arctic to oil and gas is to throw fuel on the fire that is warming the Earth and melting the Arctic. Last spring, the federal government moved to boost offshore petroleum development in Arctic waters. The National Energy Board announced it would weaken its policy requiring proof of an ability to build a relief well in the same season prior to drilling. This creates unacceptable levels of risk for the Arctic. Norway requires proven capability to initiate a relief well within 12 days of any accident. It seems the industry has more concerns for safety than the Conservative government. Total SA, the French oil giant, withdrew from its planned oil exploitation in Greenland, noting that the costs of any accident outweighed any benefit.

Similarly, Royal Dutch Shell abandoned its plans to drill off Alaska after a $4.5-billion investment continued to fail technologically. The reality is that drilling for oil in the Arctic is highly dangerous as, for much of the year, any response to an emergency will be impossible. Industry experts confirm that the private sector would not be interested in the Arctic at all—if not for subsidies.

As Canada takes the chair in the Arctic Council, it is my hope that Aglukkaq will champion a vision for a sustainable Arctic.

We need to work for an oil spill prevention strategy, for affordable food and Inuit rights, and a fisheries management strategy, within a precautionary and stewardship approach. And we have to stop ignoring the threat of a rapidly-warming climate.

Elizabeth May is the Leader of the Green Party of Canada and the Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands.
Originally printed in the Hill Times.