This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
For decades now Earth’s scientists have been concerned over the prospect of climate change, and the consequences it spells for the future of the planet. As time passes, more and more data becomes available, solidifying the argument that global warming is a natural phenomenon1, yet exacerbated and made worse by the actions of the human race. Such an argument is the subject of heated controversy, catapulting the world into endless debate over the credibility of this allegation. Just like a Crown prosecutor must submit his case before a jury, and convince them of the facts beyond any reasonable doubt, the bulk of the scientific community have been eagerly and anxiously gathering and submitting data in an effort to further unravel the facts on global warming. The jury—composed in this metaphor of Earth’s population—must be completely convinced that climate change is a man-made problem, that must be solved with decisive man-made solutions, before real solid action can be compelled. Reactions to these arguments have been varied, however, with the largest disappointment lying at the feet of the world’s most powerful governments, namely the United States. The U.S. should not bear the brunt of this blame, however; many world governments, including Canada, have made it difficult to deal with the issue of climate change. An example of this would be the recent news surrounding the Northwest Passage, a sea-route in the Arctic Ocean that connects the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. In mid-September of 2007, the European Space Agency (ESA) released satellite photographs of the iconic arctic passage, featuring a distinct lack of ice-coverage. “The area covered by sea ice in the Arctic,” the Agency reported, “has shrunk to its lowest level this week since satellite measurements began nearly 30 years ago, opening up the Northwest Passage.”2 The ESA further warns that such a drastic shrinkage serves
Edgerton, Lynne T. The Rising Tide. (Washington, D.C.: Natural Resources Defense Council, 1991), 4. European Space Agency, “Satellites witness lowest Arctic ice coverage in history,” ESA http://www.esa.int/esaCP/SEMYTC13J6F_Protecting_0.html (accessed November 28th, 2007)
as a red flag, remarking that arctic sea ice might be disappearing faster than scholars previously believed.3 The Northwest Passage could not only be easily navigable in the summer months, but for a longer period through the year; the ice-free “season” could be increased by anywhere from 41, to 100 days.4 This news was received differently across the globe, from the environmentalists seeking to understand the accelerated rate of shrinkage, to the politicians considering the possible benefits of such a development. The arctic has been the subject of concern for many years among sea-faring nations, specifically between Canada and the United States. The issue of sovereignty has been hotly debated as early as 1969, when the U.S. supertanker the Manhattan traversed the passage—without Canadian permission.5 The Manhattan incident marks the beginning of a long-term argument between the Canadians and Americans, an argument that has yet to be resolved. The Canadian Government believes the Northwest Passage lies within Canadian waters, while the Americans stridently dispute this, regarding it as an international waterway. Many nations dispute these sovereignty claims due to territorial and economical reasons—the convenience and ease of the Northwest Passage for shipping, and the possible oil to be found beneath arctic waters, presents an undeniable temptation.6 But with these concerns in mind, the larger issue of the arctic environment and its condition seems to be too easily cast aside. The ESA is correct in that arctic sea ice reduction is a “flag”—a warning that global warming is affecting the arctic in ways the scientific community does not quite yet understand, and that decisive action is required to prevent further damage.
European Space Agency, “Satellites witness lowest Arctic ice coverage in history.” Barrie, Maxwell. Responding to Global Climate Change. (Downsview, Ontario: Environment Canada, 1997), 44. 5 Tynan, Thomas M, “Canadian-American Relations in the Arctic: The Effect of Environmental Influences upon Territorial Claims.” The Review of Politics, 41, 3. (1979), 414. 6 The Globe and Mail, “The Northwest Passage Thawed,” Page A9, February 5, 2000.
One the prominent roots of the arctic warming problem lies with global warming, or climate change. With a report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1990, the “greenhouse effect” that we all attribute to climate change was recognized as a natural phenomenon. Pollution, however, was also recognized as a serious contributor to the greenhouse effect, and in doing so the issue of climate change that is being dealt with today.7 The burning of fossil fuels and deforestation (both practices nearly synonymous with modern industry) has played a large part in contributing to heightened CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere. Synthetic chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are also well known to be highly destructive to the atmosphere—CFCs are veritable ozone killers, surviving for over 100 years in the earth’s stratosphere before breaking down.8 Both the heightened presence of CO2 and CFCs has made a noticeable impact on global temperatures, and in particular in the extreme north and south latitudes of the Earth. By the end of 21st century, the average temperature in the arctic is expected to rise by as much as 10°C 9—the greatest amount of warming felt when compared to the middle latitudes; nearly two to three times greater. 10 The warmer the temperatures in the arctic, the greater the difficulty in reforming sea-ice. Normally reflecting the sun’s warmth, the disappearance of sea ice allows the dark ocean below to absorb its heat, resulting in increased water temperature.11 The warmer the water, the more difficult it is to restore normal ice-coverage—a cycle that can be difficult to break.
Edgerton, 4. Edgerton, 9. 9 Canada-European Union Symposium. Report of the Canada-European Union Symposium: Environmental Assessment, Climate Change Research and Policy Implications in the Arctic. (Ottawa: Canadian Polar Commission, 2004), 10. 10 Dowdeswell, J. A. “Glaciers in the High Arctic and Recent Environmental Change.” Philosophical Transactions: Physical Sciences and Engineering, 352, 1699. (1995), 321. 11 Science Daily, “Northwest Passage Opens: Arctic Sea Ice Reaches New Low,” ScienceDaily http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070914095358.htm (accessed November 29th, 2007)
The reduction of sea ice not only translates into warmer temperatures, but damage to marine life that depend on the existence of the ice. Pal Prestrud of Norway’s Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research, claims that the loss of ice will negatively impact marine productivity throughout the region; the vertical mixing of warm and cold currents draws valuable nutrients upwards towards the warmer waters, near the ice, where biological production occurs.12 Without the ice, very little of this is possible. This biological production is important to many species in the sea, and the land, and its disruption through insufficient ice coverage could be significant. While this effect on animal species seems more indirect, the melting of arctic ice has the potential to be much worse. Many species of birds and mammals depend on the existence of sea ice, such as the iconic polar bear, which uses the ice to hunt for seal. The disappearance of ice translates into a shortage in food, which directly puts the species at risk.13 There are already arctic species at risk due to ice shrinkage, and with the deteriorating condition of sea ice still in its infancy, there is still quite a bit of damage yet to be done. The human-related consequences are also worth looking at, specifically how melting sea ice, and melting glacial ice, will affect the globe. Lynne Edgerton, in her book for the Natural Resources Defense Council, discusses what problems melting ice in the north and south latitudes could cause. Titled The Rising Tide, Edgerton introduces the issue of global warming, how it contributes to the melting of polar ice, and how this melting has the potential to cause significant problems across the globe, from landmass erosion to loss of human life.14 Current estimates of sea-level rise by 2100 have varied over the years, starting from unusually high estimates in the early 1980s. As the years go
Canada-European Union Symposium, 19. Canada-European Union Symposium, 19. 14 Edgerton, 24.
by, and as more scientific data becomes available, those estimates have dropped (from as high as 350 centimetres in 1983, to as low as 30 centimetres in 1992). These estimates have changed, and will most likely change again in the future, but the present “ best average” sea-level rise by 2100 is a little over half a metre, or 66 centimetres, with a high and low estimate of 110 centimetres and 30 centimetres, respectively.15 In the past century alone there has been a sea-level increase of 10-20 centimetres16, and with the rapid reduction of arctic sea ice coverage, as witnessed by ESA satellites, it is very possible there will be significant modifications to present sea-level estimates. A steadily rising sea will create many problems for human populations around the globe. The worst scenario, and indeed, the most apparent when discussing the issue, is world-wide flooding, and destruction of coastal human settlements—a sea-level rise of half a metre, for example, does not simply translate into half a metre of land-loss. A 30-centimetre rise in sea levels could account for as little as 1.5 metres to 30 metres of land-loss, depending on the coastline (where it slopes gradually or not).17 Further erosion might lead to landslides as well, causing untold problems for land development. Sea-level rise also threatens important ecological areas around the world. One example would be wetlands, which provide an important function—acting as “sponges” they absorb floodwater and high tides, protecting settlements further inland. Wetlands are also considered to be filters for a variety of pollutants, from heavy metals to radioisotopes.18 Edgerton states that coastal scientists believe that a rapid rise in sea levels might annihilate “50 to 80 percent of the nation’s wetlands by the year 2100.”19 Sea level rises could seriously impact national
Nesje, Atle and Dahl, Svein Olaf. Glaciers and Environmental Change. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 172. 16 Canada-European Union Symposium, 10. 17 Edgerton, 25. 18 Edgerton, 29. 19 Edgerton, 30.
water and sewer management, waste disposal, coastal infrastructures such as roads and bridges. A 70-centimetre rise could flood coastal areas, destroying roads and settlements.20 Such a rise could also threaten freshwater sources near the coast as seawater presses further inland, threatening marine and local wildlife.21 It is quite apparent, then, that the opening of the Northwest Passage heralds more than international trade, and sovereignty-disputes. If anything, it is a reminder to the world that action is needed to combat global warming, before these estimates become facts. As previously mentioned, the sovereignty issues in the Arctic Ocean, specifically the Northwest Passage, have been a hot topic for debate between sea-faring nations. This argument has been fought between Canada and the United States for decades, with action taken by the Canadian government to ensure their arctic sovereignty dating back to before the 20th century.22 Canadians, then, have made some effort over the century to expand their territory north, and more than one Prime Minister has considered it an important issue to their nation. The United States, however, takes issue with a Canadianowned Northwest Passage, for several reasons. Citing it as an “international waterway”, the United States have, on several occasions, sent watercraft through the Northwest Passage without Canadian permission, with one such incident being the supertanker Manhattan in 1969.23 The Manhattan navigated through the Passage twice, in an effort to determine the viability of shipping tankers through the arctic.24 The Canadian Government was alarmed for two reasons: one, that the action constituted a threat to Canadian sovereignty, and two; that if a tanker were to strike a rogue iceberg, the
Edgerton, 35. Edgerton, 28. 22 Tynan, Thomas M., 404. 23 Tynan, Thomas M., 414. 24 Tynan, Thomas M., 414.
ecological ramifications would be significant, and would undoubtedly be felt by the Canadian North—a comfortable distance away from the United States.25 A Liberian tanker running aground in Nova Scotia, which ignited a firestorm in the media over the Manhattan expeditions, further compounded these concerns. It did not take long for the Canadian Parliament to draft legislation protecting the Northwest Passage, both from a territorial and ecological perspective.26 The Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act and the Territorial Sea and Fishing Zones Act of 1970 would grant Canada more control over the Northwest Passage in a number of ways. The Pollution Prevention Act established guidelines over what type of vessel might navigate the arctic passage, while also requiring the owner to provide insurance in the event of an ecological disaster. The Fishing Zones Act set up a number of territorial “gates” through the passage, which would give the Canadian Government more control in observing passing traffic.27 It took several years for the legislation to be ratified in Parliament, and even after it was in place, its enforcement was largely voluntary. Such actions proved to be more of a political statement than anything, reasserting Canada’s vested interest in the north, and specifically, the Northwest Passage. Despite such policies, the United States refused to acknowledge Canada’s sovereignty over the Passage, and continues to do so. In 2006, the United State’s current Ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, ardently stated that the Northwest Passage is in international waters, a claim he has made several times.28 Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues to strongly oppose this assertion, launching a plethora of campaigns to reassert Canadian sovereignty in the north, going as
Tynan, Thomas M., 414. Tynan, Thomas M., 415. 27 Tynan, Thomas M., 417. 28 Washington Post, “Dispute over NW Passage Revived,” Page A18, November 6, 2006.
far as blatantly referring to the Northwest Passage as “Canadian Internal Waters”29 The concern over this debate is how the end-result will affect the arctic environment. If the Passage is recognized as an international waterway, will naval-shipping throughout the region increase? Without question, it raises the risk of ecological disasters, such as oilspills, and might further impact the already sensitive condition of many northern ecosystems. With the Northwest Passage in Canadian control, certain guidelines, like the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, might assist in safeguarding the arctic environment. Even with the recent opening of the iconic arctic passage, there is no solution in sight to this territorial dispute, rendering the environmental future of the north unknown. Scientists have been watching the gradual melting of sea ice in the North for decades, estimating future loss of ice, and subsequent rises in sea level. Satellite imagery from the European Space Agency, however, surprised many of them—the degree of ice reduction discovered was unprecedented in recorded history, leaving many around the world reflecting on the possible ramifications. Global warming has the potential to affect the polar regions of the Earth far more gravely than the more populated areas of the planet, making it difficult for many to comprehend these changes. The effect of warming in the arctic, however, can be quite significant, impacting human life in direct and indirect ways; an increase in sea levels can easily destroy human coastal settlements around the world, make those unaffected more vulnerable to storms and floods, destroy coastal infrastructure such as bridges and roads, and even reduce the availability of drinking water. And while media coverage and international panels have been reasserting
VanderKlippe, Nathan, “Northwest Passage gets political name change,” The Ottawa Citizen http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/story.html?id=6d4815ac-4fdb-4cf3-a8a64225a8bd08df&k=73925 (accessed November 29th, 2007).
the dangers of global warming, government response has been disappointing. Concerning the opening up the Northwest Passage, the content of territorial disputes have largely been over shipping access and economic development (namely arctic oil and diamond deposits), and not the environmental issues. It seems as though the governments and institutions involved in these disputes are missing the point of a navigable Northwest Passage, misinterpreting such a development for future economic prosperity, while it could very well spell accelerated ecological disaster. These developments surface in a time where new data has been made available from the space probe, the Venus Express. The probe, studying the planet Venus, paints an unsettling future for the planet Earth. Venus, a planet that is described as a “furnace”, devoid of any surface water (having been boiled away years ago), was quite similar to Earth.30 Both planets share the same amount of carbon, but while Earth’s stores most of it beneath the surface, Venus’ carbon became trapped within its atmosphere—Andrew Ingersoll, of California’s Institute of Technology, dubbed it a “runaway greenhouse effect”.31 The same could theoretically occur on Earth over the long-term, should global warming be allowed to spiral out of control. An open Northwest Passage is an indicator, a warning that economic change is a necessity. The Venus Express gives humans a rare glimpse into a possible future, which should be motivation enough for world governments to initiate decisive, effective change. Whether or not that will occur remains to be seen, and until then the future of the arctic will remain uncertain. David William
CBC News, “Runaway greenhouse effect turned Venus into oven, scientists say,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2007/11/28/tech-venus-climate.html (accessed November 29th, 2007) 31 CBC News, “Runaway greenhouse effect turned Venus into oven, scientists say.”
Bibliography Barrie, Maxwell. Responding to Global Climate Change. Downsview, Ontario: Environment Canada, 1997. Canada-European Union Symposium. Report of the Canada-European Union Symposium: Environmental Assessment, Climate Change Research and Policy Implications in the Arctic. Ottawa: Canadian Polar Commission, 2004. CBC News, “Runaway greenhouse effect turned Venus into oven, scientists say,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2007/11/28/tech-venus-climate.html Dowdeswell, J. A. “Glaciers in the High Arctic and Recent Environmental Change.” Philosophical Transactions: Physical Sciences and Engineering, 352, 1699. (1995), 321-334. Edgerton, Lynne T. The Rising Tide. Washington, D.C.: Natural Resources Defense Council, 1991. European Space Agency, “Satellites witness lowest Arctic ice coverage in history,” ESA http://www.esa.int/esaCP/SEMYTC13J6F_Protecting_0.html Globe and Mail, The, “The Northwest Passage Thawed,” February 5, 2000. Nesje, Atle and Dahl, Svein Olaf. Glaciers and Environmental Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Science Daily, “Northwest Passage Opens: Arctic Sea Ice Reaches New Low,” ScienceDaily http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070914095358.htm Tynan, Thomas M, “Canadian-American Relations in the Arctic: The Effect of Environmental Influences upon Territorial Claims.” The Review of Politics, 41, 3. (1979), 402-427. VanderKlippe, Nathan, “Northwest Passage gets political name change,” The Ottawa Citizen http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/story.html?id=6d4815ac4fdb-4cf3-a8a6-4225a8bd08df&k=73925 Washington Post, “Dispute over NW Passage Revived,” November 6, 2006.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.