Global warming, blamed for melting polar bears' icy Arctic habitat, could be a boon to the shipping and oil industries in the far north, according to a new U.S. report.
HANOVER, N.H. -- Global warming, blamed for melting polar bears' icy Arctic habitat, could be a boon to the shipping and oil industries in the far north, according to a new U.S. report.
The dramatic decrease in sea ice above the Arctic Circle means formerly impenetrable shipping routes are now or soon could be open for much of the year, the U.S. Arctic Research Commission said in a report released last week at a summit of Arctic scientists in Hanover.
"Diminishing sea ice conditions in the Arctic Ocean are changing ecosystems, most conspicuously for polar bears," said the commission's report, prepared for President Bush and Congress.
"This also creates unprecedented access for ships that will bring people to the north, and will significantly shorten global marine transportation routes," it said.
The cost difference is dramatic, according to Mead Treadwell, the commission chairman. The estimated cost of transporting a shipping container between northern Europe and Alaska's Aleutian Islands is about $500 he said; moving the same container between Europe and the port of Yokohama, through the Suez Canal, costs about $1,500.
The biennial report is meant to chart a course for the next two years, coinciding with a global scientific undertaking known as the International Polar Year.
Because global warming hits the poles harder and earlier than the rest of the world, the polar year and the commission report focus on the impact of climate change, widely blamed on human activities including the burning of fossil fuels.
RISK OF OIL SPILLS
Beyond shipping, less sea ice means easier access for offshore oil exploration and drilling in the Arctic, which is thought to contain about 25 percent of the world's remaining oil and gas reserves, the report said. It also noted that about half of the fish consumed in the United States comes from the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast.
With increased prospecting for oil and gas, the risk of spills also rises, spurring the need for new clean-up technologies, Treadwell said in an interview.
"There will be the opportunity and need for changed engineering standards," Treadwell said. "Cleaning up oil in ice is a bear."
The commission is charged with recommending an integrated U.S. policy for research in the Arctic. The budget for this research is about $400 million a year, comparable to what the United States spends on Antarctic research.
In fact, the first of five goals recommended by the commission is to concentrate research on environmental change in the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea.
U.S. research should also examine human health in the Arctic, civil infrastructure, natural resource assessment and Earth science, and indigenous language, identity and culture, according to the commission.
Previous plans for Arctic research have been so general and so spread among 15 agencies that they were ineffective for anyone involved in the budget process, Treadwell said.
"We couldn't tell how spending levels were advancing objectives," he said. "We're asking these 15 agencies to put together a more specific plan."