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Xuelong (Snow Dragon) departing on an Arctic expedition. China is planning to build a new expedition research icebreaker vessel in addition to Xuelong, which traversed the Arctic for the country's fifth North Pole expedition. Provided to China Daily
Melting Arctic ice has broad implications for the world, reminding people of the serious nature of global warming. Environmentalists regard the region as the last frontier of unmolested natural tranquility and are trying to protect it from exploitation by business. Det Norsk Veritas / for China Daily
But cold comfort for those who expect results in the short term in tough terrain
The Arctic is no virgin. As early as 1920, the first onshore oil wells were dug in Canada's Mackenzie River valley. Since then more than 400 oil and gas fields have been discovered in the Arctic region. However, thanks to the harsh environment and high operational costs, progress for both oil and gas and shipping industries there has been slow.
A warmer Arctic, where melting sea ice clears sea routes, allowing more traffic and construction for better infrastructure, is certainly more inviting. And this is exactly what is happening. Since 1951 the Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the world. During this period, the temperature in Greenland rose by 1.5 C, compared with a global average of 0.7 C, research data shows. Evidence also demonstrates that the discrepancy is likely to continue.
Glaciers and ice sheets in the region, as a result, have been receding. The minimum ice-covered area in the Arctic occurred in September. It has been shrinking at a pace of 10 percent every 10 years on average in recent decades, according to a report released by the Norwegian risk management and classification society Det Norsk Veritas.
Reminding the world of the serious nature of global warming, the melting Arctic ice has broad implications. Environmentalists regard the region as the last frontier of unmolested natural tranquility and try to protect it from exploration by companies. Meanwhile politicians in the Arctic states are debating the participation of non-Arctic countries in the region's issues, especially China, whose movements now give rise to fears and concerns in the international community, thanks to its rising economic status in recent decades.
To many Arctic observers, this is indeed a worrying scenario. On Sept 17 last year, the ice sheet in the Arctic Ocean diminished to an area of 3.41 million square kilometers, half of the minimum area in 1979, research data shows. Moreover, as the sheet becomes thinner and smaller, the volume of sea ice has melted even faster, shrinking to only a quarter of what it was in 1979. "If this trend continues, the Arctic Ocean might be nearly ice-free in late summer within the next decades," the Det Norsk Veritas report said.
Scientists who have been tracking ice melting in the region for many years were also shocked by the unexpectedly fast pace at which things are developing. They urge that more funding should be raised for Arctic research so scientists could have better knowledge of the region and make more reliable models to predict what is going to happen. "Arctic researchers still face challenges caused by a profound lack of data," Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of Physics of the Oceans from the Germany-based Potsdam University, said at a recent forum.
A diminishing ice sheet would kick off a chain of reactions in the Arctic ecosystem and threaten the unique micro-ecosystem, such as microbial habitats within ice shelves, media and research reports said.
Yet for those who live far away from the Arctic region, the impact is also noticeable. According to Rahmstorf, "about one fourth of the observed sea-level rise is believed to be contributed by melting Arctic ice". He also said research has found data evidence to link the shrinking ice to extreme weather events, such as the heat wave in Russia in 2010 and one that occurred in Europe in 2013. "We expect to see more extreme weather patterns in the future," Rahmstorf added.
Promise and paradox
The retreating ice sheet, in the meantime, is like lifting the lid on a treasure box. The Arctic is thought to contain 20 percent of the world's undiscovered hydrocarbon resources, with 84 percent of it believed to be offshore, mostly in waters less than 500 meters deep, according to a Det Norsk Veritas report.
The mining industry expects to extract reserves of rare earth minerals while countries along the Arctic coast are looking forward to tapping into the Arctic tourism business to boost job opportunities. Because there is no scientific argument specifically against developing economic activities in the region, the melting ice seems to have only provided a convenient condition.
But for some industries, hopes for a windfall may not come true. The fishery industry is a case in point. The region offers bountiful sources of food for people across the world - currently about 10 percent of the global fisheries catch comes from Arctic waters. Some wonder, as the region warms, whether the oceans might become more productive.
Yet the latest research showed, counterintuitively, that is not true. One of the main reasons is that warming in the Arctic region enhances ocean stratification, a process that separates seawater into several layers. The more stratified water is, the less the nutrients carried in it mingle and move around, according to research reports.
For the shipping, oil and gas industries, which by far seem to have the most to gain, things are not so easy either. As the ice retreats, new shipping routes are opening. There are currently three main shipping routes across the Arctic region - the North East Passage, the North West Passage and the Central Route.
The melting ice has cleared the North East Passage from the end of July for four months or more, while the Central Route opened from the end of August for one month or more, said Yang Huigen, director-general of the Polar Research Institute of China, the country's leading institute in the Arctic research.
Traversing through the Arctic, shipping companies could cut their transportation time between most European and Asian ports by one-third. This can cut greenhouse emissions as well as fuel costs, which have increased steadily over the past few years. The Arctic route would also free ships from attacks by pirates, which cost shipping companies $7 billion to $12 billion every year in insurance, ransoms and other payments.
Yet, harsh environmental conditions in the region, where vessels and crews are exposed to challenges such as 24-hour nights, extreme low temperatures and the icing up of equipment require extra costs and investments from shipping companies. "There is still a question mark on the so-called Arctic sea route profit (for shipping companies)," said Morten Mejlaender-Larsen, an Arctic expert and discipline leader of Arctic operations and technology at Det Norsk Veritas .
The oil and gas industry has also encountered its share of obstacles. On Feb 27 the oil giant Shell announced that it will give up exploration for oil in Arctic waters this year. Several of the company's facilities and vessels would need repair and were unable to start drilling before the sea freezes over again. The company has so far spent more than $5 billion on the project, according to media reports.
In one of its latest research notes, the Economist Intelligence Unit argued that the Arctic oil projects are not worth the investment - at least for now. The challenging environment will make operational costs very high and increasingly stricter environmental regulations will further push up costs, the report said. In the meantime, "consumption is unlikely to grow and that has price implications, especially in view of increasing supply" and substitutions of alternative energy sources such as bio-fuel and shale oil, according to the report.
Environmental groups, which are lobbying against drilling activities in the region, are not being irrational. Should an offshore accident occur, the climate and weather conditions in the region would hamper effective response and restoration efforts. In the meantime, currently available technologies to clean oil spills from the sea surface would perform poorly in the harsh weather conditions, according to the Det Norsk Veritas report.
Boasting great economic potential, yet threatened by grim environmental consequences, "The Arctic is, simultaneously, a region of great promise and great paradox," said Leiv Lunde, director of the Norway-based Fridtof Nansen Institute.
Snow dragon coming
The opening up of the Arctic is also sparking widespread interest, reshaping the global geopolitical landscape. Currently the region is governed by the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, which provides the basic legal framework for marine activities in the Arctic.
The Arctic Council, founded in 1996, is a regional soft-law institution alongside the legally binding mechanism. Consisting of the eight states with territory within the Arctic Circle (namely, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden), the council has demonstrated ambitions to become a high-level forum that could be involved in a wide range of circumpolar matters and has achieved increasing influence in recent years. In February, it set up a permanent secretariat in the Norwegian city Tromso.
China, along with many other non-Arctic states, has applied for permanent observer status at the Arctic Council. This year's ministerial meeting, to be held on May 15, is expected to deliver a decision on China's application.
With rising economic power and international influence, every movement China takes attracts attention from the international community. The country is currently an ad hoc observer at the council, which means it has to apply to attend each meeting held by the council.
In terms of influence on the decision-making process in the council's ministerial meetings, a permanent observer status is no different from that of an ad hoc observer. Yet many critics believe this move signals China's increasing interest in the Arctic region and that it is trying to boost its clout within the club.
Facts suggest that China's growing interest in the Arctic region are mainly economical. And that can only serve to enhance commercial ties between the Asian country and Arctic states, rather than creating conflicts and confrontation.
Russia is arguably the most influential player among the Arctic states, possessing at least half of the land area in the region. Although there is no evidence showing that China is improving ties with Russia purely out of interest in the Arctic, it certainly plays a part.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping's first official trip abroad - to Moscow - Russia and China signed a number of agreements. By dint of this opportunity, the State-owned oil giant China National Petroleum Corp signed an agreement with its Russian counterpart Rosneft to cooperate in the Russian Arctic regions.
On April 16, China signed a free trade agreement with Iceland and state heads from the two countries reaffirmed future cooperation in the Arctic region. Trade volume between the two countries in 2012 jumped 21 percent from a year earlier to a total of $180 million. The growth is expected to continue.
Another reason for the Arctic not yet featuring an important position in China's foreign policy is that the country's research into the region may not be comprehensive enough to support greater interest. To date, Arctic research in China has focused on the environmental and climatic consequences caused by the melting ice.
Although in recent years there has been an increasing number of researchers looking into the economic and political implications, it still takes time for their work to influence policy-makers' decisions. The Chinese government has yet to voice an official position regarding the Arctic region.
"Chinese researchers need to take a more comprehensive approach in their studies of the Arctic," said Yang from the Polar Research Institute of China.
At the same time, the fact that China is more interested in the Antarctic should also encourage Arctic states to relax. Economically speaking, the unregulated Antarctic appears much more rewarding. In comparison, the Arctic is a highly regulated region, with more than 80 percent of the resources under national jurisdiction and the coastal states have exclusive jurisdiction over exploration.
Even scientific expeditions prioritize the Antarctic. China recently announced plans to construct two new stations there, in addition to the existing three. The country is also trying to build a new expedition research icebreaker vessel in addition to Xuelong (Snow Dragon), which traversed the Arctic for the country's fifth North Pole expedition.
The new vessel, designed mainly by foreign companies and built in China, and expected to be operational in 2014, will adopt technical requirements for Antarctic expeditions in front of those for the Arctic, a person close to the matter told China Daily.
"There is a saying among us: The new vessel will reach wherever it can in the Arctic and wherever we want to in the Antarctic," he said, speaking under the condition of anonymity.
A dragon in the awakening can be unnerving but, for the Arctic states, it may take a while before its fiery breath is felt.
(China Daily 05/13/2013 page13)