As part of their annual review, the UN says that melting of the world's Arctic waters should not be an excuse to encourage a race to exploit the mineral and energy resources that such melting have made accessible, and urged international caution to avoid damage to the fragile Arctic environment.
Released as the UN Environment Programme's Year Book 2013 (pdf), the report discusses how retreat of Arctic summer ice cover has become more intense in recent years, culminating in a record low 18 percent below the previous recorded minimum in 2007 and 50 percent below the average in the 1980s and 1990s. Increasing the concern, land ice is also retreating and long-frozen permafrost is melting as well.
What's worse, however, is that the melting is being seen as an opening to previously inaccessible natural resources by oil and gas companies. The UN report says that increased human activity—such as drilling and the infrastructure needed to support such operations—would threaten the already fragile ecosystems and wildlife in those regions.
"What we are seeing is that the melting of ice is prompting a rush for exactly the fossil fuel resources that fuelled the melt in the first place."
"Changing environmental conditions in the Arctic - often considered a bellwether for global climate change - have been an issue of concern for some time, but as of yet this awareness has not translated into urgent action," said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.
"In fact, what we are seeing is that the melting of ice is prompting a rush for exactly the fossil fuel resources that fuelled the melt in the first place," he added. "The rush to exploit these vast untapped reserves have consequences that must be carefully thought through by countries everywhere, given the global impacts and issues at stake."
The agency urges improved governance for the region, especially as the retreat of sea ice has been more rapid than projected in the last report from the UN's International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That report predicted that the Arctic could be ice-free by 2100, but UNEP says now "that the most-common prediction today is that this could come to pass by 2035."
As Reuters adds:
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and 15 percent of oil is in the Arctic. Several companies, including Russia's Rosneft, Norway's Statoil and U.S.-based Exxon Mobil are getting ready to drill in areas of melting sea ice, despite the risks, technological difficulties and costs.
Some countries have estimated that the Northern Sea Route would be turned into a shipping highway, with a 40-fold increase in shipping by 2020.
There is also likely to be a boom in fisheries. A widely predicted northward shift in sub-arctic fish species, including Atlantic and Pacific cod, is now being detected. It is estimated that fish catches in the high latitudes, including the Arctic, could increase by 30 to 70 percent by 2055.
The UN report offered the following recommendations for dealing with the issue:
- Reducing greenhouse gas emissions remains the most-important measure. Action within the UN climate process is essential and there may be scope for complementary action on curbing regional emissions of short-lived pollutants such as black carbon.
- No steps to exploit the new environmental state of the Arctic should be taken without first assessing how the exploitation would affect ecosystems, the peoples of the North and the rest of the world as the potential for major environmental damage is high.
- The challenges posed by climate change and social and economic development in the Arctic require a long-term vision and innovative policy responses. Assessing the options for the Arctic should explicitly include indigenous peoples and other stakeholders.
- The rapid pace of change means that strengthened systems for monitoring and providing early warnings of new developments are essential. In particular, environmental research is urgently needed on the impact of short-lived pollutants, the mechanisms of changes to snow and ice and their implications, present and future changes in the biosphere, and the use of traditional knowledge to inform policy and management actions.
But such a cautious approach—though welcome as an alternative to a mad Arctic dash by the world's hungriest and most ruthless energy and mineral companies—may not please environmentalists and conservationists who want the Arctic to be fully protected from exploitation and who will read phrases like "innovative policy responses" and "systems for monitoring...new developments" as a green light for governments to proceed.
Groups like Greenpeace, who have launched a global campaign to 'Save the Arctic', say that oil and gas development should not be allowed in some of the only places left on Earth untouched by the polluting and damaging practice of resource extraction projects.
As part of their campaign, Greenpeace urges the creation of a "global sanctuary around the North Pole" and a complete and enforceable ban on offshore drilling and other "destructive industries" in the Arctic.
"Not only does the Arctic work to regulate the global climate," says Greenpeace's executive director, Kumi Naidoo, "it's also home to a rich ecosystem and indigenous people who depend on that ecosystem. Polar bears, seals, walruses and whales are just some of the species that call the Arctic home."
And unless the fight to protect it catches on, he says, "It's all in danger."