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 | 20-11-2023

Achilles tendon Arctic (2/3):
The development of the Arctic – economic temptations that act as sustainable opportunities  


In our three-part series “Arctic Achilles Tendon”, our senior expert on marine issues and biodiversity Prof. Dr. Dr. H. c. Karin Lochte and former managing partner and marine biologist Dr. Alexis Katechakis explain why the Arctic is so important (part 1), what economic temptations lie in developing the Arctic, which act as sustainable opportunities and how we can protect the Arctic – also so that it can protect us (part 3).

Alexis, what economic temptations are there for companies as a result of the disappearing ice and look like sustainable opportunities from afar?   

1st supposed opportunity: Shorter transport routes  

Melting ice opened up new shipping routes through the Arctic Ocean. Traffic has increased by 430 % in just 3 years. And merchant ships continue to break the ice we need, while the noise of their ships' engines and propellers disrupts sea life. Most ships burn heavy oil, which pollutes the air and darkens the ice with soot. This reduces the albedo of the ice and accelerates melting. The scale: The 15 largest container ships in the world emit more pollutants than all cars combined. In addition, heavy oil-powered ships in the Arctic Ocean risk oil spills in a remote ecosystem where cleaning up spills is difficult or impossible. There are also many nuclear-powered icebreakers operating in the Arctic Ocean, which can pose a further threat to this sensitive habitat.

It is not enough to ban the use of heavy fuel or mandate emissions control in the international waters of the Arctic Ocean, because most shipping traffic passes within the territories of the Arctic riparian states. Any fuel used by merchant ships causes pollution.

Additionally, there is no proven effective method to contain, let alone clean up, potential oil spills – especially in the remote, icy Arctic waters. The grounding of the Exxon Valdez in 1989 – the worst oil spill until the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010 – shows how difficult it is to manage an oil spill. The environment still bears the scars 30 years later.

Therefore, there is no environmentally friendly shipping in the Arctic Ocean. In fact, every ship is one too many. The opening of new shipping routes north of the Arctic Circle is therefore not a sustainable opportunity, but can increase massive man-made climate change and contribute to the loss of Arctic biodiversity.

The Northwest Passage shortens shipping routes (the sea route between Europe and Asia, Rotterdam – Tokyo, is shortened from the previous route through the Suez Canal with 21,100 kilometers to 15,900 kilometers) and less CO2 is emitted, but the ecosystem in the Arctic is too sensitive. This sea route does more harm than good.


2nd supposed opportunity: energy reserves

Within the 200 nautical mile zone off their coast, the countries bordering the Arctic are allowed to use the sea and the bottom economically. Anyone who can prove that “their” continental shelf extends further than 200 nautical miles into the sea can also claim larger parts of the ocean floor as their own. Russia, for example, is trying to do this with the Lomonosov Ridge, which is supposedly the natural extension of Siberia. Canada and Greenland have also filed extensive territorial claims, which the “Continental Shelf Limits Commission” (Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf – a body of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) must decide on. It requires comprehensive data on ocean depths and sediment thickness. From this it determines where the continental shelf ends.

As early as 2015, scientists warned against using the oil and gas contained in the Arctic seabed: in any scenario that limits global temperature rise to “well below 2°C,” it must remain in the ground. But this does not stop some countries from pushing ahead with seismic testing and drilling. The temptation seems too great: According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Arctic region contains 13 % of the Earth's suspected oil resources and 30 % of the recoverable gas reserves.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arktis_Bodensch%C3%A4tze.gif

Hundreds of new exploration areas were offered in 2022 alone. For example, Russia's Vostok oil project, described as the "largest oil project in the world", is expected to include the construction of a seaport, two airports, 800 km of new pipelines and 15 new cities in the Vankor region by 2030. The Russian Energy Ministry estimates that Arctic oil production will account for 26 % of total production by 2035, up from 11.8 % in 2007. Norway has developed 125 new oil exploration blocks off its coast, half of which lie above the Arctic Circle. This will be one of the northernmost offshore drilling sites in the world. 

Companies are searching for oil and gas deposits deep in the ocean floor using seismic blasting, using so-called airgun explosions that are 100,000 times louder than a jet engine – every ten seconds, 24 hours a day. Scientists already know that this is very harmful to marine animals – especially whales, which communicate through vocalizations and perceive their environment through sound. Hearing loss, disrupted mating, feeding and migration patterns, stranding and death can follow. Seventeen species of whales – nearly a quarter of the world's 93 species – live in the Arctic Ocean for at least part of the year. 10 of the 17 are officially classified as critically endangered, others are considered threatened. 

Our world cannot afford oil and gas exploration in the Arctic Ocean. Any investment in Arctic oil and gas is an investment in our destruction. The Arctic seabed also contains a lot of methane, bound in the form of gas hydrates. Releases from sea and land permafrost – soil that normally never thaws – can release large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. 50 gigatons could be emitted – 12 times more than is currently present in the Earth's atmosphere. In the short term, methane is 25 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. A release of 50 gigatons could cause $60 trillion in damage from natural disasters and greatly impact the global economy. 

The thawing of permafrost could also lead to the activation of previously frozen pathogens (viruses and bacteria) that are known to be viable even after thousands of years and against which we may not be prepared. 


3. Perceived opportunity: protection through military positioning

Russia and NATO increased their activities in the Arctic Ocean even before the annexation of Crimea. Russia has reactivated many former Cold War bases, established an Arctic command and military base along its Arctic coast, created four Arctic brigades, and renovated old airfields and deep-sea ports. 30,000 NATO soldiers and 50 NATO warships were in the Arctic region until the end of April 2022 in an exercise called “Cold Response” – the largest military activity within the Arctic Circle since the 1980s. At the end of July 2022, President Putin reiterated his intention to strengthen Russia's position in the Arctic. “Strategic stability” should be ensured there by expanding the Northern and Pacific fleets. The aim is to develop a “safe and competitive” sea route from Europe to Asia in the Arctic and to make it navigable all year round. The so-called Northeast Passage runs along the Arctic coast of Russia. 26 times (as of August 29, 2023) are Norwegian fighter jets moved up this year to intercept Russian aircraft in NATO airspace. Moscow, in order to assert its claim to the polar region, established units specialized in fighting in the Arctic more than a decade ago. Russia's activities are displacing the border areas This year, for the first time in 65 years, an American aircraft carrier docked in a Norwegian port before taking part in exercises with NATO allies in the north, after Finland – and soon Sweden – joined NATO.

There are also concerns that Russia has mapped critical underwater infrastructure in the Arctic sea and could carry out acts of sabotage against Europe, according to Western officials. Last month, NATO is said to have set up a center to protect underwater pipelines and cables. Last year, a 44-year-old Russian posed as a Brazilian visiting scientist to work on polar issues at the Norwegian university. He was arrested in October on espionage charges.

You don't want a theater of war anywhere. But the Arctic is really the last place we can afford that, because the nuclear waste dumped in the Cold War era still lies at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. This includes the former Soviet nuclear submarine K-27, which experts have described as a “possible radioactive time bomb”.

4. supposed opportunity: raising awareness

In 2022, at least 107 multi-day cruises through the Arctic Ocean north of the Arctic Circle were planned – some even as far as the North Pole – and at least 204 further commercial trips in the High Arctic for whale watching or northern lights observation. Many cruise ships discharge wastewater into endangered marine ecosystems. The antifouling paint on their hulls is toxic. They burn heavy oil with a high CO2 footprint and release other pollutants into the atmosphere. Some Arctic cruise ships run on nuclear power instead of burning heavy fuel oil. But this costly technology, usually reserved for military ships, is adding even more heat to the ocean and increasing the risk of a nuclear disaster.

In addition, the noise of ship engines and screws disturbs sea life. In addition, cruises in the Arctic are dangerous for passengers. If something happens in this remote ecosystem, help can be hours or days away. In 2018, the Academic Ioffe ran aground in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago with 162 people. Even with no wind, it took 20 hours for the next ship to reach them. When the Akademik Sergey Vavilov arrived, it was dangerously overloaded with the rescued passengers. They ended up in a tiny Nunavut community unable to accommodate so many people.

5th supposed opportunity: fish stocks

With parts of the Arctic Ocean significantly warmer than they should naturally be and many species struggling to adapt to ice loss, the Arctic ecosystem is in critical condition. The Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean currently recommends a ban on fishing on the high seas for 16 years. But this ban is not yet in effect and will not be enough. The majority of commercial fishing does not take place on the high seas, but rather closer to the coast. Allowing commercial fishing in the Arctic Ocean above the Arctic Circle only worsens the problem of overfishing and declining global fish stocks.

Pollutants from ships and equipment contaminate the environment and fish and enter the food chain. Bottom trawling also destroys the seabed communities that are necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

It is not enough to stop fishing on the high seas. A truly sustainable fishery means that the only fishery north of the Arctic Circle is non-commercial and only serves the traditional livelihood of the people there.

6th supposed opportunity: waste storage

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea allows so-called dumping within the exclusive economic zones of countries along the coast. Dumping means the disposal of waste in bodies of water. The term originally comes from opening a flap. As a rule, this involves liquid waste or heavy oil residues that are disposed of when a ship or tank is cleaned at sea. But waste knows no borders and can travel long distances. Pollution of the Arctic Ocean from such activities threatens to cause irreparable damage to this vulnerable ecosystem. Plastics, waste and gray water from ships kill marine life and can destroy habitats for centuries. Increasing shipping traffic increases the possibility of illegal or unregulated dumping and pollution.


Thanks for your comprehensive assessment, Alexis. In the third part of our three-part series “Arctic Achilles Tendon”, we will look at how we can protect the Arctic – also so that it can protect us. Read more here.