Friday, September 22, 2006

The Geopolitics of Climate Change

A chunk of the Northern polar ice cap disappeared this summer, leaving a hole bigger than Kansas (about 81,000 sq miles) stretching all the way to the Pole itself.
European scientists voiced shock as they showed pictures which showed Arctic ice cover had disappeared so much last month that a ship could sail unhindered from Europe's most northerly outpost to the North Pole itself.

The satellite images were acquired from August 23 to 25 by instruments aboard Envisat and EOS Aqua, two satellites operated by the European Space Agency (ESA).

Perennial sea ice -- thick ice that is normally present year-round and is not affected by the Arctic summer -- had disappeared over an area bigger than the British Isles, ESA said.

Vast patches of ice-free sea stretched north of Svalbard, an archipelago lying midway between Norway and the North Ple, and extended deep into the Russian Arctic, all the way to the North Pole, the agency said in a press release.

"This situation is unlike anything observed in previous record low-ice seasons," said Mark Drinkwater of ESA's Oceans/Ice Unit.

"It is highly imaginable that a ship could have passed from Spitzbergen or Northern Siberia through what is normally pack ice to reach the North Pole without difficulty."

Spitzbergen is one of the Svalbard islands, which are Norwegian.

Drinkwater added: "If this anomaly continues, the Northeast Passage, or 'Northern Sea Route' between Europe and Asia will be open over longer intervals of time, and it is conceivable we might see attempts at sailing around the world directly across the summer Arctic Ocean within the next 10 to 20 years."

The images are for late summer. In the last weeks, what was open water has begun to freeze, as the autumn air temperatures over the Arctic begin to fall, ESA said.
The effects on ecosystems of such a massive summer melt, were it to become common, would be devastating. Several species would be endangered. The effects on the world environment would be equally as catastrophic - although it wouldn't mean a rise in sea levels it could well mean higher rainfall in many areas, as well as shifting crucial oceanic currents which would lead to a collapse of fisheries and widespread climate change. Much of Europe, for instance, would cease to be mild year-round and see temperatures more like those of Canada - which would create a food crisis of mammoth proportions.

However, the geopolitical implications of such a massive change in the Northern ice pack are equally as potentially cataclysmic. Most of us are used to a "map" of the world in which all movement is pretty much lateral - the top and the bottom of the map are no-go areas. Its been that way since the early days of seafaring and it has become a culturally accepted axiom at a very basic level. Nuclear powered subs and ballistic missiles changed that somewhat but, still, sea trade was unable to take the shortest route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Its what spurred development of the Panama Canal - one of the world's truly unique strategic installations. The Polar Routes, particularly the NorthWestPassage across the top of Canada, cut the journey from Asia to Europe by about 2,500 miles and from 12 to 20 days - and so represent millions, billions, in saved costs. Panama may be about to become obselete while Canada may be about to receive a windfall in trade route tariffs.

Then there's the natural resources of the polar seas. Oil galore, for one thing. Norways state oil company estimates that a quarter of the world's untapped reserves lie under those icepacked seas - about 375 billion barrels. Canada may be the next Saudi Arabia. Add in the massive new fishing grounds and polar-faring nations like canada, Russia and the U.S. see potentials for gain and for conflict. The U.S. insists that all these newly uncovered riches lie in international waters while those that border these opening waters insist the riches belong to them. Canada is beefing up its cold water naval capacity while the U.S. Navy has, since at least 2001, recognized that the situation could lead the two nations into war.

But if, as many have suggested, the root cause of war is competition for natural resources when populations outgrow their local stocks, then climate change in Europe is perhaps the most frightening factor of all. A huge urban and technological population will find itself living where its climate no longer fully supports it. Farming as it currently exists in Europe will collapse, populations will move, economies will fall rapidly into depression. The stage will be set for European belligerence and since all will be in the same boat it is unlikely that belligerence will be aimed at other Europeans, at least in the long run. Europe has the population and technical base to militarise rapidly.

Imagine a united Europe, forced by global warming to look for "lebensraum" and the conflicts of interest that would ensue with other world powers. If that doesn't scare you, nothing will. It may be the best reason of all not to be a denier about climate change.

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