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In the Warming Arctic Seas

Sea Ice, Beaufort Sea, Alaska. (Photo: Subhankar Banerjee, July 2002)

Following is an excerpt from the article, “In the Warming Arctic Seas,” published in the Summer 2015 Issue “Climate’s Cliff” of the World Policy Journal. To read the full article click here.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

I was standing in the back of the sled when it broke through the ice, plunging into the frigid water of the Hulahula River. Just in time, Robert yanked the machine. The heavy sled, instead of falling on me, gradually moved out of the shallow water. It must have been about 40 degrees below zero. I began to settle into hypothermia. Robert Thompson and his cousin Perry Anashugak quickly set up the tent and lit both burners of the Coleman stove. Inside a sleeping bag, I began to warm up. That day, I escaped death, barely. “The river is supposed to have solid ice on the surface in November, not fragile like this,” Robert lamented. That was 2001, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in northeast Alaska. 

These incidents constitute a starting point, showing how varieties of environmental changes have arrived in a rather short time, since the turn of the 21st century, in a particular place—each representative of the many significant climate change impacts that affect the human communities and the nonhuman biotic life in the entire circumpolar Arctic. When land and sea are going through rapid changes, inhabitants of the area are usually the first to witness it. In 2002, the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, in cooperation with the Arctic Studies Center of the Smithsonian Institution, pointed out that the indigenous peoples “are already witnessing disturbing and severe climatic and ecological changes,” even though “the majority of the Earth’s citizens have not seen any significant climate changes thus far.” Thirteen years later, a majority of the world’s people are experiencing significant impacts of climate change. In the Arctic, the changes have only accelerated. 

Consider the following as an example.

Coastal Erosion

Iñupiaq conservationist Robert Thompson and his wife Jane live in Kaktovik, a small town of about 300 residents on Barter Island. “Waves are bigger, now that the pack ice is so far out,” Robert says. Thomas Gordon and his son, Simon, from Kaktovik were washed away by waves while they were onshore camping during a hunting trip about 30 miles west of the town. Robert attributes these two deaths to climate change. Storms are also becoming more violent with rapid Arctic warming. The aggregate impact of a reduced expanse and duration of sea ice, combined with stronger waves, intense storms, thawing of permafrost, and a rise in sea level is rapid coastal erosion. During March and April 2002, Robert and I camped along the Beaufort Sea coast at Brownlow Point on the Canning River delta in the Arctic NWR, 60 miles west of Kaktovik. Of the 29 days we were there, we had only four calm days. The rest of the time, blizzards blew steadily with peak wind speeds of 65 miles an hour and temperatures of 45 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, bringing the windchill down to minus 110 degrees. The spot where we camped has now been washed away by the sea.

“Our family has a native allotment acquired by my wife’s mother who was born and grew up in the Brownlow Point area,” Robert told me. “A few years ago, we went there to see it. We found that the beach had eroded 400 feet, the houses and buildings that had been there were gone, an old boat built by my wife’s grandfather was destroyed by waves. Family members had lived there for 100 years. Now it’s gone. On Barter Island, where we now live, we have lost at least 100 feet of land on the ocean side of the island.”


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Kivalina is an Iñupiat community of about 400 residents, situated 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle along the Chukchi Sea. “We have been noticing climate change for several decades now, and we were adapting to the gradual changes,” Colleen Swan, tribal administrator of the Native Village of Kivalina, said in April. Kivalina residents started to notice coastal erosion in the 1950s and voted to relocate the village in 1992. But soon they found “there was no designated government body to assist communities with the process” of relocation, sociologist Christine Shearer writes. Federal funds are available only after a disaster, not while a community like Kivalina is going through what writer Rob Nixon calls, “slow violence.” 


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In recent years, slow has turned into rapid. “Everything changed in October 2004,” Colleen says. After autumn storms in 2004 and 2005 caused serious damage to the village, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared Kivalina a disaster area. A sea barrier using sand bags was constructed, which “failed the day before its inauguration,” Shearer says. After another storm in 2007, which required evacuation, a barrier was built with rocks the following year. The rock revetment “was the only thing that saved the village during a severe storm in November 2011,” Colleen says with a sense of relief. “It was like a tropical cyclone, and those don’t happen here.”

Relocation remains a necessity. The revetment would last about 10 to 15 years, and it’s already into seven years of its useful life. “We have no option but to relocate the village to a safer place,” Colleen insisted. Nearly 200 indigenous villages in Alaska are being affected by coastal erosion and flooding, with 31 of these facing imminent threats, and 12 requiring relocation, including Kivalina, according to two U.S. Government Accountability Office reports. In February 2015, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited Kivalina. Her agency committed $8 million to assist the community. Yet the money is not for relocation but “climate adaptation planning” and “ocean/coastal management planning.” In other words, the funds will go toward more meetings to build awareness. Besides, the $8 million is a small sum compared to estimates of the full cost of Kivalina’s relocation—about $100 million. 

Germany’s Institute of Coastal Research concludes “there are no comprehensive global assessments of the vulnerability of Arctic communities and infrastructure to accelerated coastal erosion.” Still, a decades-long mean rate of coastal retreat is about 3.28-6.56 feet per year but can vary up as much as 32.8 to 98.4 feet per year in some locations, with the highest rates found along the Beaufort Sea coast of Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest territories in Canada, and the East Siberian and Laptev seas in Russia. The 400 feet of erosion over a decade in the Brownlow Point area along the Beaufort Sea coast no longer seems implausible given that the maximum rate could be as high as 98.4 feet per year. Single events, however, may cause much larger erosion than the decade-long mean rates, as in the case of storm-induced erosion in Kivalina. While villages like Kivalina are considering immediate relocation, other communities like Tuktoyaktuk along the Beaufort Sea coast of Arctic Canada are pondering “phased retreat.” The coastal areas of the East Siberian and Laptev seas are very sparsely populated, and there is no specific knowledge about how impacted those human populations are by coastal erosion, and what plan, if any, they might have about relocation.    

Coastal erosion has profound impact not only on human communities but also on Arctic ecology. The Arctic river deltas are considered biological hotspots of the Arctic coasts. “They have high biodiversity and are extremely productive in relation to adjacent landscapes,” the German Institute reports. These ecologically rich Arctic deltas provide habitats for numerous species of birds and fish, but remain vulnerable to rapid coastal erosion and sea level rise, as well as increasing oil and gas activities.

Arctic Looting

Just as the Arctic is going through rapid and devastating changes due largely to the burning of fossil fuels, it would seem illogical, even unconscionable, to industrialize the Arctic Ocean for fossil fuels extraction, as it would contribute to further warming of the Arctic and rest of the Earth. Yet that is precisely what the Arctic nation states are pursuing—largely for economic reasons—ignoring ecological and human rights concerns. In 2008, the United States Geological Survey released the first-ever area-wide assessment of oil and gas resources in the Arctic, identifying 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids—some 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and about 30 percent of undiscovered natural gas. Some 84 percent of it is found offshore—in the warming Arctic seas. Using the USGS and U.S. Department of Energy data, Ernest & Young has calculated that 52 percent of these undiscovered hydrocarbon resources are located in Russia, 20 percent in the United States, 12 percent in Norway, 11 percent in Greenland, and 5 percent in Canada. A majority of the world’s natural gas is located in the Russian Arctic, while the U.S. Arctic holds the largest undiscovered oil resources, some 30 billion barrels of oil.

Non-Arctic states like China and India are trying to establish their own stake of Arctic loot as well. In 2013, at the Arctic Council biennial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, six non-Arctic states were added to the Arctic Council as observers: China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. “All have sought economic opportunities in the region and viewed participation in the Arctic Council as a means of influencing the decisions of its permanent members,”The New York Times noted at the time. The Arctic Council, founded in 1996, is comprised of eight members (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States), and a number of observers.    

Many Arctic nations have a history of offshore exploration going back decades. In the United States, exploration drilling began in the late 1970s and ended in the early 1990s. These efforts largely failed, as exploration did not lead to production except in one instance—a near-shore, anchored-to-the-ground facility, called North Star, run by BP on the Beaufort Sea. In the Canadian Arctic, starting in 1972 through the 1980s, about 90 exploration wells were drilled in the Beaufort Sea, 34 in Nunavut’s High Arctic Islands, and three in the Eastern Arctic offshore. Again, exploration did not lead to production, and oil companies gave up the leases in the 1990s. Offshore exploration drilling began in Greenland in the late 1970s. Six wells were drilled, the last in 1990, but again none led to production. Norway began exploring the Barents Sea in 1981, the same year Statoil discovered the huge Snøhvit gas fields, still the only liquid natural gas source north of the Arctic Circle. Over the past three decades Statoil and other companies have drilled more than 80 exploration wells in the Barents Sea. In recent years, the Russian company Gazprom in partnership with Statoil and the French oil giant Total have been evaluating the giant Shtokman gas fields in the Russian Barents Sea. Since 1962, of 61 Arctic fields discovered so far, 43 are in Russia, 11 in Canada, six in Alaska, and one in Norway. The biggest offshore prize is believed to lie in the Russian Arctic—in the Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, and Chukchi seas. 

Since the turn of the century, with the rapid retreat of sea ice, Arctic nations are once again pushing to develop Arctic seas for oil and gas, but the results from this second wave so far look more like a bust than a boom. Though Canada made a push to develop the Beaufort Sea from 2005 through 2008, as of 2011 there was no active drilling there according to the National Energy Board of Canada. Last year, Chevron put its plan to drill in the Canadian Beaufort on indefinite hold. Earlier this year, Statoil shelved its 2015 drilling plan in the Barents Sea and handed back the three leases it had purchased in Baffin Bay off the west coast of Greenland, although retaining one lease in the Greenland Sea off the east coast of Greenland. Cairn Energy’s exploration drilling in Greenland’s Arctic waters did not lead to commercial discoveries. Following the Ukraine crisis and American sanctions on Russia, ExxonMobil was prohibited from working with Rosneft to drill in the Kara Sea in the Russia Arctic this year. The French oil giant Total simply walked away from the American Arctic in 2012, stating that drilling there could lead to a “disaster.” 

In some Arctic countries the attitude toward developing their seas for oil and gas is beginning to change, slowly. “In Iceland, the talk about oil and gas drilling was all based on the dream of becoming Norway, of getting out of the economic crisis,” says renowned Icelandic novelist Andri Snær Magnason, who has also spent time in Greenland. “When research permits were granted by the left Green Party, almost nobody raised a voice against it. The single parliamentarian who was critical on the issue was bashed in social media for being against ‘progress.’ But times have been changing. The Social Democrats, industrialists by tradition, decided in their last convention to oppose oil drilling, claiming oil is best left in the ground—a bit late, as research permits have been granted to Icelandic/Chinese companies and little can be done to stop them from harnessing what they find. In Greenland, they have been looking for oil for years, but no research is on the horizon this year. For Greenland and Iceland, the oil dream seems far away, and views have shifted in both countries.”

Many oil companies are moving away from expensive Arctic exploration because of the low price of oil coupled with fear of environmental disasters. Only Royal Dutch Shell is determined to develop the Arctic seas of Alaska despite great setbacks following a brief season of exploration drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in 2012, which included grounding of one of its drill rigs and criminal charges and penalties leveled against the company and its subcontractor for violating environmental regulations. 

March 31, 2015 was the deadline for nations to pledge greenhouse gas emission cuts to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in preparation for the UN climate summit in Paris in December. By the deadline, pledges arrived of a 40 percent cut from the European Union, at least 40 percent from Norway, and 50 percent from Switzerland—all cutbacks from 1990-level emissions. On the last day, the United States entered its pledge: 26 to 28 percent by 2025. But that number is based on cuts from the 2005 level, which when translated to the 1990 level that other developed nations are using, would come to about 13.4 to 15.8 percent.

The same day the United States submitted its greenhouse gas cut pledge, however, the Department of Interior published a decision bringing Royal Dutch Shell’s plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea of Arctic Alaska during summer 2015 one step closer. But oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean is inconsistent with climate change mitigation efforts. A study published in Nature states unequivocally that “development of [fossil fuel] resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production [like Canadian tar sands] are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade” above the pre-industrial level.

For many Iñupiat people, Arctic warming and oil and gas drilling in the Arctic seas are inseparable. Robert emailed that, “People must become aware of what is happening to us and to the animals in our area, and do whatever to remedy the situation so our future generations will have a good place to live.” The “remedy” that Robert cites requires leaving a significant portion of the fossil fuels resources in the ground. The Arctic Ocean seems to be the most logical place to begin such a process of restraint. But that is not happening. On May 11, the Obama administration conditionally approved Shell’s plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer, which angered environmentalists. It is a “victory for the oil-and-gas industry” and will likely “pave the way for additional companies exploring in the region,” The Wall Street Journal noted. In other words, the United States, which assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in late April, is currently leading the process of large-scale industrialization of the Arctic Ocean, not “environmental stewardship” that Secretary John Kerry insisted at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Iqaluit, Canada. In light of this significant public policy decision, it is not difficult to imagine that the Paris climate summit, which will commence soon after Shell completes the drilling season in the Chukchi Sea, will be more about lofty rhetoric to save faces, not the sincere actions desperately needed to mitigate climate change.

Subhankar Banerjee

Subhankar Banerjee
Subhankar Banerjee works closely with Indigenous Gwich’in and Iñupiat community members and environmental organizations to protect significant biological nurseries in Arctic Alaska. Author of "Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land" (Mountaineers Books, 2003), and editor of "Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point" (Seven Stories Press, 2013), Subhankar is currently completing two books: coeditor (with T.J. Demos and Emily Eliza Scott) of "Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture and Climate Change" (Routledge, Spring 2021), and coauthor (with Ananda Banerjee) of "Biological Annihilation" (Seven Stories Press, Spring 2022). Subhankar serves as the founding Director of the Species in Peril project at UNM.

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