Fire and ice

August 12, 2007

A Danish expedition is scheduled to set out today to join in the unseemly rush to establish sovereignty claims in the Arctic. The Russians put a flag on the sea floor earlier this month, and the Canadians, after sneering at the Russian "stunt," then sent their prime minister to the Far North to wave the Maple Leaf over what may become disputed territory.

All three nations are impelled by deadlines established in the Law of the Sea Treaty - a pact the United States has not ratified, which is why it has so far remained on the sidelines. But there's only one reason for the interest: the potentially vast oil and gas deposits in the continental shelf. And what do you know? They're becoming a lot more accessible than they used to be.

The Arctic ice pack has shrunk to its smallest extent in recorded history this summer, according to one study - or is a few weeks away from doing so, according to another. Symbolically, perhaps, a large chunk of ice unexpectedly calved off a glacier on the Svalbard Islands last week, injuring 17 passengers on a tourist boat that had drawn too close. Today's Danish expedition sets off from those same islands.

The ice is melting because the polar regions are experiencing the effect of a warming climate more drastically than the rest of the planet. The less ice there is, the less the summer sun's rays are reflected and the faster the whole area warms up. That makes it tough on polar bears, which have been drowning in the open water, but it raises happy expectations among energy drillers. The U.S. government calculates that a quarter of all undiscovered gas and oil reserves may be in the Arctic.

There was a famous saying attributed to Vladimir Lenin, the Russian revolutionary: "The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them." Somehow that seems appropriate now to the Arctic claims rush, which has a heedless, think-only-in-the-short-term air about it. Global warming is making it easier to tap into the Arctic's carbon-based energy reserves, which when extracted and burned will at the very least pose the threat of significantly more global warming.

It's a virtuous circle if you like the idea of having more and more hydrocarbon fuel, but a vicious one if you worry about making large parts of the earth uninhabitable.

Arctic ice does the world more good than Arctic oil and gas ever could.

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