As Polar Ice Turns To Water, Dreams Of Treasure Abound
Date: Tuesday, October 11 2005
NYTimes, Oct.10, 2005
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS, STEVEN LEE MYERS, ANDREW C. REVKIN and SIMON ROMERO
CHURCHILL, Manitoba - It seems harsh to say that bad news for polar bears is good for Pat Broe. Mr. Broe, a Denver entrepreneur, is no more to blame than anyone else for a meltdown at the top of the world that threatens Arctic mammals and ancient traditions and lends credibility to dark visions of global warming.
Still, the newest study of the Arctic ice cap - finding that it faded this summer to its smallest size ever recorded - is beginning to make Mr. Broe look like a visionary for buying this derelict Hudson Bay port from the Canadian government in 1997. Especially at the price he paid: about $7.
By Mr. Broe's calculations, Churchill could bring in as much as $100 million a year as a port on Arctic shipping lanes shorter by thousands of miles than routes to the south, and traffic would only increase as the retreat of ice in the region clears the way for a longer shipping season.
With major companies and nations large and small adopting similar logic, the Arctic is undergoing nothing less than a great rush for virgin territory and natural resources worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Even before the polar ice began shrinking more each summer, countries were pushing into the frigid Barents Sea, lured by undersea oil and gas fields and emboldened by advances in technology. But now, as thinning ice stands to simplify construction of drilling rigs, exploration is likely to move even farther north.
Last year, scientists found tantalizing hints of oil in seabed samples just 200 miles from the North Pole. All told, one quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas resources lies in the Arctic, according to the United States Geological Survey.
The polar thaw is also starting to unlock other treasures: lucrative shipping routes, perhaps even the storied Northwest Passage; new cruise ship destinations; and important commercial fisheries.
"It's the positive side of global warming, if there is a positive side," said Ron Lemieux, the transportation minister of Manitoba, whose provincial government is investing millions in Churchill.
If the melting continues, as many Arctic experts expect, the mass of floating ice that has crowned the planet for millions of years may largely disappear for entire summers this century. Instead of the white wilderness that killed explorers and defeated navigators for centuries, the world would have a blue pole on top, a seasonally open sea nearly five times the size of the Mediterranean.
But if the Arctic is no longer a frozen backyard, the fences matter. For now it is not clear where those fences are. Under a treaty called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, territory is determined by how far a nation's continental shelf extends into the sea. Under the treaty, countries have limited time after ratifying it to map the sea floor and make claims.
In 2001, Russia made the first move, staking out virtually half the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole. But after challenges by other nations, including the United States, Russia sought to bolster its claim by sending a research ship north to gather more geographical data. On Aug. 29, it reached the pole without the help of an icebreaker - the first ship ever to do so.
The United States, an Arctic nation itself because of Alaska, could also try to expand its territory. But several senators who oppose any possible infringement on American sovereignty have repeatedly blocked ratification of the treaty.
Indeed, not everyone agrees that warming of the Arctic merits concern. No one knows what share of the recent thawing can be attributed to natural cycles and how much to heat-trapping pollution linked to recent global warming, and some scientists and government officials, particularly in Russia, are dismissive of assertions that a permanent change is at hand.
"We are not going to have apple trees growing in Vorkuta," said the mayor of that coal-mining city, Igor L. Shpektor, who is also the president of Russia's union of Arctic cities and towns.
But the current thaw is already real enough for the four million people within the Arctic Circle, including about 150,000 Inuit. "As long as it's ice," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, leader of a transnational Inuit group, "nobody cares except us, because we hunt and fish and travel on that ice. However, the minute it starts to thaw and becomes water, then the whole world is interested."
Increasingly, big corporations, the eight countries with Arctic footholds and other nations farther south are betting on the possibility of a great transformation. Energy-hungry China has set up a research station on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen and twice deployed its icebreaker Snow Dragon, which normally works in Antarctica, to northern waters to conduct climate research.
Interest in Arctic-hardy vessels has picked up so much that in January, Aker Finnyards, a giant shipbuilder based in Helsinki, created a subsidiary just to develop ice-hardened ships. Its new double-ended tanker slips smoothly through open water bow first but can spin around and use an icebreakerlike stern to smash through heavy floes. A Finnish energy company bought two for about $90 million apiece, and after buying one Russia licensed the design and is building two more.
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on October 12, 2005]