What a summer we’ve had eh, not just here in the UK where it was terrible, but globally; a season where weather went mad and Arctic ice caps took a long-awaited vacation from their comfy ocean abodes, whisked into the atmosphere by a warming world and natural craziness that literally none of us saw coming. Considering the summer isn’t actually even over yet, the impact of these factors is made all the more potent, and is much of the reason for such fervour in the media over drought, floods and food prices. What next?
Well for one thing, more ignorant foolishness is on the horizon, in the form of offshore drilling, perhaps the most lucrative and most idiotic fossil fuel resource we [apparently] have easy access to. Whose leading the revolution at sea? Why Shell of course, with backing by the American Interior and Obama’s government.
As we all have undoubtedly heard via the blaring sirens of the news outlets and internet aggregators, summer Arctic ice hit some pretty fancy milestones last month; let’s go over them quickly to put this post into context.
The level of melt reached its peak last August, on the 26th, falling to levels not seen for 30 years of recording, and a full 3-4 weeks before the usual point at which summer temperatures drive the highest reductions in ice, around mid-September. Not only was this melt way off the charts in terms of rapidity and severity, but it has now been touted as a rate so ‘amazing’ that it is considered by Dr Hansen, the famed climate scientist, to be unprecedented in scale in at least as much as 1,500 years, let alone 30, and that we as polluters should be trembling in our boots.
Carrying on with this theme, Hansen recently released a video detailing data for Northern Hemisphere average temperatures, where he compares 1951-1980 ranges to 2000-2011 records, and there’s an obvious contrast. The most common peak temperatures are a whole standard deviation away from the 1951-1980 means, and altogether the data shows deviations of up to 5 towards warmer temperatures, effectively stating that as we’ve progressed as a society, the past decade has seen more N Hemisphere warming than the whole 30 year period studied prior. It’s not a huge leap of logic to see that these massively pumped up temperatures, only set to increase, are likely responsible for most, if not all of the accelerated ice-melt being experienced in the Arctic.
The basic physics is as follows. Sea-ice has a high albedo; it reflects up to 85% of incoming sunlight, varying wildly depending upon the quality and smoothness of the surface. As this ice melts due to warming ambient temperatures, darker, lower-albedo ocean is revealed, absorbing sunlight and melting further ice, causing a cascading effect known as a positive feedback system. On top of this, ice which managed to hold itself together in this balmy environment will be thinner, less smooth on the surface and may retain meltwater pools, all of which reduce its albedo and thus exacerbate warming. It’s a wonderfully simple and undeniable mechanism which could easily spin out of control without management.
Of course, despite these very negative results, there is always a silver-lining to any dark cloud, and boy is this one shiny to some. Underneath the Arctic circle, be it within the thawing permafrost of Alaska or Siberia, or buried within the warming seabeds of the Northern-most seas, reside huge (and they are huge) reserves of natural hydrocarbons, such as natural gas and oil, of which until now, nobody has been able to access. With Arctic ice melting as rapidly as it is, these resources are quickly becoming available to the highest bidder and sneakiest pirates of the energy world. I wouldn’t be lying if I were to say that companies such as Shell, Exxon Mobil, BP and Total are smacking their lips and rubbing their hands as these vast riches are revealed to the world faster and faster. What a lovely present they would be in a world of ‘peak oil’ and energy ‘independence’.
So it’s with great worry that, as of this week, Shell has been given approval by the EPA and Obama to begin drilling exploration in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska, with plans to begin drilling and setting up offshore projects if allowed further permits. Although the EPA has given strict rules to Shell not to begin any form of penetration into oil reserves, preliminary drilling to around 1,400ft is allowed, with relaxed emissions restrictions during their time scouting out the area. Some are saying this is tantamount to ‘rewarding Shell for not complying to the rules’, as prior to this permit, Shell has stated they were unable to meet EPA regulations with existing emissions restrictions in place.
Of course, now that Obama has the election biting at his heels, the all too infamous ‘all of the above’ approach to energy futures means that offshore exploration and oil independency is key on the agenda, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Shell, once they’ve finished playing around in the Arctic, is given full permission to begin drilling, effectively opening the floodgates to multiple other companies to come swooping in to set up their very own Arctic oil drinking straws. Unfortunately, this is likely to become a common theme in the near-future, as drilling platforms and pipelines are laid down as fast as they can be regulated in the warming Arctic, where the melting of ice, sped up by the very practice of extracting and burning oil, reveals yet more of the black gold.
This also comes at a time when old oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster is washing up on American shores, stirred up by Hurricane Isaac, a stark reminder of the inherent dangers of the entire offshore industry. With both competing parties of government fighting to keep the oil and natural gas industries alive, especially those of the domestic flavour, I don’t see much in the way of hurdles to trip this process up.
What I find most disturbing out this whole craze however is this; oil rig disasters are among the worst seen in the history of not just the fossil fuel industry, but the entire energy industry as a whole, and are becoming increasingly common and more terrible each time. At the same time, we have people complaining about the adverse health effects to both human and environment from such things as wind turbines, smart meters, hydropower or dare I say it, biofuels, and due to this anti-movement, many projects are being stalled or cancelled on these grounds. While it’s true there are many associations out there fighting hard to keep the oil companies at bay from the Arctic, offshore drilling continues to be funded and promoted, in some cases by nations who have felt the full effects of a well-head explosion multiple times!
Honestly, sometimes, my faith in humanity just crumbles completely. God only knows what an exploited Arctic may bring forth in the future; an exacting revenge I feel.