Having already read a great deal about climate change and the Arctic, I expected Alun Anderson’s After the Ice: Life, Death, and Geopolitics in the New Arctic to provide only a moderate quantity of new information. I was quite surprised by just how much novel, relevant, and important content he was able to fit into the 263 pages. The book discusses the historical and current relations between governments and Arctic indigenous peoples; ice flow dynamics and exploration; the changing nature of Arctic ecosystems and species, along with information on what climate change may do to them; international law and the geopolitical implications of a melting Arctic; oil, gas, and other natural resources, and how their availability is likely and unlikely to change in coming decades; the rising tide of Arctic shipping, and the special safety and environmental considerations that accompany it; and the feedback effects that exist between a changing Arctic and a changing climate.

Ecosystems

Some of the best information on the book is about biology and Arctic ecosystems. It describes them from the level of microscopic photosynthetic organisms up to the level of the megafauna that gets so much attention. Anderson argues that most of the large marine mammals (seals, walruses, whales, etc) are threatened to some extent or another by the loss of sea ice. This is for several reasons. First, it could disrupt the lowest levels of the food web they rely upon. Second, it could permit the influx of invasive species that could out-compete, starve, or attack existing Arctic species. Third, the lifecycles of Arctic animals are slow and deliberate, and thus liable to disruption from faster-breeding competitors. Disappearing sea ice off Svalbard has already completely wiped out what was once “one of the best areas for ringed seal reproduction.” Arctic species, argues Anderson, will need to “move, adapt, or die.” Generalists like beluga whales have promise, while the narwhal and polar bear may be the most vulnerable large creature in the ecosystem.

One consequence of the loss of multi-year sea ice that I had not anticipated is the potential for a massive migration of species between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, with invasive species potentially seriously altering the composition of ecosystems on both sides. Melting ice could therefore produce major changes in much of the world’s ocean. Even before that, expanded range for orcas could have a significant effect on life in northern waters. Where ice used to provide safety, by obstructing their pectoral fins, these powerful predators increasingly have free reign.

Resources, shipping, and tourism

Anderson makes an effective argument that most of the oil, gas, and resources in the Arctic will be effectively locked away for some time yet. There will always be ice in the winters, glacial ice calving off Greenland and other Arctic islands poses a significant risk due to its extreme hardness, and very high commodity prices are necessary to justify the risk and capital investment required to operate in the region. (See this post on the the Shtokman gas field.) He expects that, even if there is a boom, it will be short-lived and of limited benefit to those living in the region. In particular, he cautions people living in the north not to abandon traditional ways of life sustained by things other than oil and gas. Living for a couple of rich decades and then being left with nothing would be a tragic outcome.

The book also downplays fears about a scramble for resources and sovereign control. Anderson argues that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) already provides a clear legal framework and that negotiated outcomes are probable. That should provide some comfort to those concerned about diplomatic or even armed conflicts in the changing north. One danger Anderson does highlight is how the risk of collision with ice, increasing shipping and tourist traffic, and the absence of emergency response capabilities could combine. He describes plausible scenarios where major oil spills or massive loss of life could result, due to a problem with a tanker or a cruise ship (disproportionately full of elderly people susceptible to cold, as they are).

While Anderson does an excellent job of explaining some of the risks to species and human beings from a changing Arctic, he doesn’t take seriously the possibility of truly radical or catastrophic change, of the kind highlighted as possible by James Hansen. Anderson also completely fails to describe how the incremental emissions from burning oil and gas in the Arctic would inevitably increase the degree of climate change experienced by humans and natural systems. It is cumulative emissions that matter most, and extracting hydrocarbons from the far north can only increase those.

For anyone with an interest in what is happening to the Arctic and what the medium- and long-term implications of that might be, this book is enthusiastically recommended.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Antonia March 12, 2010 at 7:30 am

Related but not really a response. Here’s an interesting article I read this week on extra pressure on whales: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8545073.stm

. March 16, 2010 at 12:22 pm

The future of the Arctic
The bleakest outlook in the world
Oil, gas, shipping and overfishing all threaten northern waters

Dec 10th 2009 | From The Economist print edition

THE Arctic is changing faster and more dramatically than any other environment on the planet. The ice that defines it is melting with alarming speed, taking with it life that can survive nowhere else. Oil, gas, shipping and fishing interests have been heading into the newly open water, with diplomats, lawyers, and now authors, in their wake.

In his new book, “After the Ice”, Alun Anderson, a former editor of New Scientist, offers a clear and chilling account of the science of the Arctic and a gripping glimpse of how the future may turn out there.

Not that scientists have all the answers. Neither atmospheric scientists nor oceanographers can adequately account for the speed of the changes. It is not for want of trying. Fridtjof Nansen’s pioneering journeys at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century first hinted at the whirling of the ice pack. Cold-war submarines then mapped the shifting ridges running beneath it. Satellite surveys and large arrays of iceberg-mounted probes are a useful addition, but much is still done by hardy individuals camped out in the cold.

Mr Anderson looks in on the extraordinary, tiny world of the tributary system within the Arctic ice, formed by trickles of briny water which gets squeezed as it freezes. But from the bear above to the microscopic wonders within, all are doomed once the summer ice goes, which is expected to happen at some point between 2013 and 2050.

R.K. March 16, 2010 at 3:32 pm

One consequence of the loss of multi-year sea ice that I had not anticipated is the potential for a massive migration of species between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, with invasive species potentially seriously altering the composition of ecosystems on both sides

Intuitively, this does seem as though it could be quite an important change. Much smaller scale migrations, caused by creatures in bilge water and the like, have already had significant regional effects.

. May 15, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Among those who welcome the review, is the Inuvialuit Game Council. “With the recent blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the communities will likely have less faith to take industry at its word,” said Lawrence Amos. He added, “In the Gulf of Mexico, the capacity to respond to a spill is far greater than anything available in the Arctic. Both in terms of equipment and manpower. In light of this, it really hit home that there is no way that a similar response would be possible in the Beaufort Sea or anywhere in the Canadian Arctic should a major oil spill happen.”

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