Obituary for an Arctic river

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Dried lake pinnacles in a newly exposed part of Kluane Lake, Yukon, Canada. Photo: Jim Best/University of Illinois

I haven’t been posting a lot lately, and that’s because I’ve had a hectic schedule over the past month with fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic and conferences and talks on the East Coast of the United States. Now, I’m happy to be back in one place for a little while, which allows me some time to sit, gather my thoughts, and reflect on the latest developments in the Arctic.

Much of the Northern news this week has focused on Russia’s opening of a new Arctic military base on Franz Josef Land, a couple hundred miles east of Svalbard. Fox News took the bait and asked in its headline, “A new Cold War in the Arctic? Russia unveils virtual tour of new military base.” I think the headline answers its own question because if we were on track for a new Cold War, I doubt Russia would be allowing web surfers from around the world to explore the base via its dedicated website (in Russian).

A bigger story this week in terms of rapid Arctic change involves the sudden disappearance of a river in the Yukon, located in Canada’s western Arctic, last spring. In a case of what scientists term “river piracy,” climate-driven glacial retreat caused the glacially-fed Slims River (A’ay Chu, in the native language) to stop flowing north into the Bering Sea and instead west into the Gulf of Alaska. Essentially, the lake on top of the Kaskawulsh Glacier that drained into the Slims River changed its outlet to the previously much smaller Kaskawulsh River. Previously, scientists thought that river piracy happened over the course of centuries. In the Yukon, the drying up of the Slims River happened in a mere four days.

This is the first known instance of post-industrial, climactically-driven river reorganization. The fact that it was “geologically instantaneous,” to use the words of the Nature Geoscience paper’s authors, also suggests that the timescale with which we imagine Arctic climate change is woefully misguided. The retreat of Arctic sea ice, for instance, is usually imagined as taking place over years or decades. For an Arctic river to disappear in a matter of days brings “rapid Arctic climate change” to a whole new level. The authors also urge, “Most studies of the effects of climate change on glacial environments deal with enhanced melt or contributions to sea-level rise. We suggest that the effects can be more far reaching.”

This epic landscape transformation in the Yukon may wreak havoc on downstream ecosystems. The authors also reported that by Fall 2016, months after the river rerouting, “massive afternoon dust storms almost daily on the nearly abandoned Slims River floodplain.” In the future, the picturesque, UNESCO World Heritage-designated lake into which the Slims River flows, Kluane Lake, may even seasonally close. The river and lake, which is the Yukon’s largest, are located in Kluane National Park. This is one of the jewels of Canada’s parks system, containing the country’s tallest peak and the world’s largest non-polar ice field. The Kluane First Nations and other northerners who rely on the lake for sustenance and recreation, along with the fish and other marine species that inhabit it, could all be severely impacted as well.

The colours of Kluane Lake #exploreyukon |Photo by @jte__photography #explorecanada

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A healthy Kluane Lake.

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Dust storms in a newly exposed part of Kluane Lake. Photo: Jim Best/University of Illinois

This story of the disappearance of the Slims River hit close to home ago because just a few weeks ago, I was in the Yukon. I didn’t have much time to get out on the land, but I did see some incredible mountains flying in and out of Whitehorse, the territory’s capital. The dramatic landscape seems too large – larger than life, to borrow Travel Yukon’s official slogan for the territory – for humans to be able to seriously alter it. But alas, as scientists, satellite imagery, and fieldwork confirm, we have.

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Descending into Whitehorse. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

When I was in the Yukon in March, I stayed in the capital, Whitehorse. The city of 23,000 people sits along the Yukon River, which is also glacially fed. I spent a nice evening in late March, when the sun already stays out until close to 9:00 pm, walking along the Millennium Trail that loops around a five-kilometer stretch of the meandering river. The trail turns back towards town at the Whitehorse Hydro Plant, which underscores how rivers and hydropower have become key sources of energy for northern Canada. No rushing river, no spinning turbines, no hydropower.

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Big chunks of ice in front of Whitehorse’s hydropower plant. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

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SS Klondike, a historic sternwheeler that used to run freight between Whitehorse and Dawson along the Yukon River during the 20th century. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

Like the Slims River, the Yukon River’s headwaters are located in a glacier (Llewellyn Glacier, to be exact, in British Columbia). If the Yukon River hadn’t existed, much of the territory’s development would likely have never taken place whether in prehistoric or industrial times. Rivers have long provided sustenance for northern First Nations like the Holikachuk and the Gwich’in. In the modern era, salmon fisheries have become an important industry, while rivers have also been used as transportation arteries by steamboats sailing between the Yukon and Alaska. These routes were key for opening up the Canadian and American North to gold seekers and miners. By 1899, 30 steamboats were plying the Yukon River alone.

In the Yukon, rivers aren’t as important as they used to be for industrial transport given that that most of the territory’s communities are now connected by road. Many roadless settlements in the neighboring Northwest Territories rely on barge transport, however. If one of the NWT’s glacially fed rivers were to dry up, goods would have to be flown in at great cost – or else a gravel road would have to be built great distances across unforgiving terrain. The northern communities of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk are already replacing their ice road, built on the frozen Mackenzie River each year, with an all-weather highway that will open later this year. In the Arctic, rivers of gravel are replacing rivers of ice.

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The winter ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. The ice road sits atop the Mackenzie River. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

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Work being done in a gravel pit near the Inuvik-Tuk Highway. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

Rivers also remain key battlefields in the fight between environmentalists and mining interests. The resource-rich Peel Watershed, which is home to four First Nations, is ground zero for this debate in the Yukon at the moment. The ongoing battle is currently being decided by Canada’s Supreme Court, demonstrating how rivers can serve as organizing forces for both preservationists and developers. If a river like the Peel were to suddenly disappear, however, and turns into a dusty watershed unable to support people, flora, or fauna, then maybe mining will have its day. I suppose this is already happening in the Arctic, where, with sea ice retreating, the response appears to be one of, “Bring in the oil rigs!”

So, to those of you who haven’t experienced the glacial thrill of swimming, fishing, kayaking, or simply picnicking aside a river in the Yukon: get there while you can. I’ll never forget the long day I spent on Canada Day Weekend along the Ogilvie River with friends last summer, casting our lines into the cold water, taking a quick dip in a peaceful river bend, making s’mores under the midnight sun, and seeing a rainbow at two in the morning. Let’s hope more of the Arctic’s rivers don’t disappear anytime soon.

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A rainbow at 2am along the Ogilvie River. Photo: Mia Bennett, July 2016.

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Polar Code enters into force, but doubts remain about its ability to protect environment

The Silversea Silver Explorer ship at Monacobreen Glacier in Svalbard. Photo: WikiMedia Commons

The Silversea Silver Explorer ship at Monacobreen Glacier in Svalbard. Photo: WikiMedia Commons

On January 1 of this year, the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code entered into force. The new regulations are intended to improve safety at sea and environmental protection in Arctic and Antarctic waters. Years in the making, the Polar Code couldn’t have come sooner, for the number of vessels, particularly cruise ships, in the Arctic grows each year. Cruises are increasingly venturing into the Arctic in order to cater to tourists seeking destinations marketed as pristine and untouched. And indeed at a regional scale, the world’s northernmost oceans are relatively unpolluted compared to the rest of the world, as the map below reveals.

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Ocean pollution levels in the Arctic in 2013. Data: National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Map: Mia Bennett/Cryopolitics.

Yet trading a holiday in the Mediterranean for one in the Arctic comes with consequences for fragile polar ecosystems. In the Arctic, cruise ships are often mentioned in the same breath as “ecotourism,” with tourism seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to industries like oil and gas or mining. Yet cruise ships generate large amounts of pollution. In terms of wastewater generation, cruise ships can also be worse offenders than lightly staffed cargo ships simply by virtue of having so many people on board.

Cruise-related pollution includes black water (sewage), gray water (from sinks, laundries, showers, etc.), and oily bilge water. Cruise ships also spew black carbon into the air, especially when they burn heavy fuel oil (HFO), which organizations like HFO-Free Arctic are trying to ban from the region. When the soot released into the air from burning HFO falls onto ice and snow in the Arctic, it can accelerate melting and, by consequence, climate change.

Epitomizing the boom in Arctic shipping in part thanks to more navigable waters, last summer, the first-ever cruise ship transit of the Northwest Passage took place. Though Crystal Serenity’s pioneering voyage attracted major headlines, more modest cruises into the Arctic are arguably exerting a bigger overall impact. Crystal Serenity had some 800 passengers and at least 600 crew. Yet according to John Kaltenstein, a Senior Policy Analyst at Friends of the Earth U.S., 10 other cruise ships with over 1,000 passengers traveled to the Arctic last year. That makes for 10,000 people who sailed through the Arctic in addition to Crystal Serenity’s high-paying customers, all leaving various forms of pollution in their wake.

Many of these cruises travel to places like Svalbard and Iceland, where high levels of marine traffic have resulted in elevated ocean pollution. The waters around Iceland, in fact, appear almost indistinguishable from the heavily trafficked waters around the United Kingdom. Though Iceland is imagined as lying on the frigid periphery of Europe, the high levels of pollution around its coastline reveal its deep integration into the North Atlantic shipping network.

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Polluted waters around northern Norway and Svalbard.

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Polluted waters around Iceland and the North Atlantic.

Even Greenland, which sees a lot of smaller-scale traffic from personal vessels and cargo ships making deliveries up and down the coast, has relatively polluted waters.

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Crystal Serenity voluntarily adhered to stricter environmental controls than required by law, including using marine distillate fuel, which is a better grade than HFO. But Arctic cruises that are away from the spotlight are not likely to voluntarily follow the same standards set by the high-profile voyage.

That’s where the Polar Code could come in useful, but the policy is not as strong as it could be. The regulations ban heavy fuel oil in Antarctica, but not the Arctic. Attendants at the 10th Arctic Shipping Summit in Montreal next week will discuss whether to expand the ban into the Arctic. The Polar Code also prohibits oily discharge, but it fails to mention of gray water even though it can introduce “faecal coliform bacteria, nutrients, food waste, and medical and dental waste” into the surrounding seas, according to a report associated with the 2013 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.

Poster of the Polar Code's regulations pertaining to the environment.

Poster of the Polar Code’s regulations pertaining to the environment. Source: IMO

For a story I wrote for this month’s issue of The Maritime Executive on pollution solutions for the global cruise shipping industry, I interviewed John Kaltenstein, senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth U.S., regarding the environmental impacts of Arctic cruising. He was kind enough to let me republish our wide-ranging conversation in full. We touched on the Polar Code, cruise-related pollution, the fate of the Arctic Ocean under Trump, and what the deliberate pollution cover-up at Princess Cruise Lines means for the Arctic.

MB: How will the new Polar Code affect cruise shipping?

JK: In a nutshell, I don’t think it will affect it that much. There seems to be a tendency or a movement of larger cruise ships into the Arctic. I think our records indicated that there were 11 that had over 1,000 passengers and crew that traveled in Arctic in 2016, and I don’t think that trend will diminish in any way going forward – especially in light of the successful cruise ship activity of the Serenity through the Northwest Passage last summer. So I think the industry is flourishing. From a lot of parts of the world – Asia, Oceania – we’ll see continued activity into the Arctic. I don’t think the Code will constrain that activity.”

MB: Will the Polar Code help reduce pollution? 

JK: The environmental groups were fairly critical of the environmental portion of the Polar Code. Heavy fuel oil was a big issue for us. There’s a recommendation there with respect to the Arctic, but we felt more should have been done with respect to a fuel that poses so much risk to the region.

Some of the other provisions in the Code also didn’t improve the situation all that much. When you look at the sewage provisions, we don’t believe they added a lot. There, of course, is no Polar Code provision with respect to gray water, which is a big issue when you’re talking about cruise ships – the amount of wastewater at issue. Those are the areas we felt are deficient and still are. Hopefully, they’ll be addressed at some time going forward. As for now, there are definitely some large gaps when you’re talking about pollution control and some of the environmental provisions in the code. And cruise ships do represent a lot of waste stream. And especially in an area like the fragile Arctic, we believe a lot more can be done. We’ll have to look to other measures besides the Polar Code.

MB: Do you think cruise ships could take it on themselves to try to reduce pollution? 

JK: A lot can be done voluntarily. There will probably be some focus on what cruise ship lines are doing in the Arctic. As I mentioned, with the 11 cruise ships with 1,000 passengers or more, more and more lines will be entering into those waters, and I think they should be evaluated because the types of operations can really differ.

The Serenity did a number of positive things including using marine distillate fuel, but many aren’t sure that others will follow suit in terms going above and beyond certain environmental aspects. I think this is a situation where the market and information can make a difference in terms of environmental performance in terms of the industry. Because the Code is not going to provide the stringency we need, and national regulations do vary a good deal. So this is one of those areas where we could see some significant improvement by looking at what actors are doing. If consumers and policymakers need information about practices, those voyages need to be transparent. That would help a lot. Then we can talk about setting high standards and using good practices. There’s been some good stuff in the Arctic Council about best practices, and we’re hoping these can translate into real world benefits and minimizing risks. The environmental community would like to see that, as well as international organizations in the Arctic, policy makers, and the Council.

In the short term, that’s what we’re going to have to look at. We might see some efforts at the national level. And you know, if we’re talking about voluntary measures, the lines can do that immediately this coming season. We’re hopeful and I think the issues in the Arctic are being covered a lot more – somewhat in mainstream press, but definitely in niche and industry press. Sea ice and climate change have definitely been getting some attention in the mainstream press as to how that’s opened up the Arctic for travel and leisure.

MB: What is the number one threat posed by Arctic cruising?

JK: The number one threat is still represented by heavy fuel oil in terms of both spill [possibility] but also the pollution profile in terms of warming and air quality impacts. I think we could do without it. We have been doing without it in some parts of the world for a good chunk of time. For us, it really comes down to the industry showing the will to be an environmentally responsible actor. I think the rhetoric is often there, their professing to be responsible actors, but the will is often lacking. You’re judged on what you do up there, and this is one of those very discrete cases where you’re operating on heavy fuel oil or liquefied natural gas. What are you doing up there to make a difference in terms of your impact or profile? I think we have a good precedent with the Serenity. Hopefully other lines in the region can follow suit. It’s definitely a good start.

There are other issues. Wastewater needs to be taken into account: what kinds of treatment systems, what are they doing with their gray water – it’s a concern for environmental groups and Arctic organizations, especially in the Bering Strait area. There’s lots of concern about what this influx of cruise ship activity, especially large cruise ship activities, will bring in terms of discharges and how it will affect their way of life and subsistence practices. That’s a very real issue and if you’re familiar with the recent executive order with the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resiliency Area, it’s a good indication of how concerned they are because there is specific reference to discharge in the order.

MB: How do you think the Trump administration will impact regulations on pollution in the Arctic?

JK: I’m hopeful there will be a continuation of the good policies that have put forward by the Trudeau and Obama administrations to safeguard the region. We’ll see what transpires. I think they made a very good start, both countries, especially of late, to chart out what course they’d like to see in the Arctic.

MB: Any last thoughts you’d like to add?

JK: The situation with Princess and the criminal charges and the fine1 – that brings up some real issues in terms of compliance monitoring. This is an issue that concerns me a lot with respect to shipping and the cruise industry. If you look at the different regimes, in Alaska, we have a fairly comprehensive regime in place that pertains to their waters that has stringent regulations with respect to sewage and gray water effluent standards that it must meet including permitting, sampling, monitoring, and record-keeping. It’s a whole gamut of things that one looks at. We also have Ocean-Ranger – independent 3rd party monitors.

And the Princess case is an important one because I think it shows if you peel back the curtain, and you look beyond that, you see that the situation with Princess was largely premised on a whistleblower incident. Had we not had that, those violations could have continued to this day and we would not know about it – and the records go back to 2005 in terms of when the improprieties started at Princess. I think that should give people pause that especially when operating in very remote regions, if there’s not a third party Ocean Ranger or some kind of independent monitor in place, we don’t really know what’s going on at sea. And the practices like these, like we saw with the Princess Caribbean and some of the other Princess ships, and what was also admitted to, and other Carnival family ships, we’re left in the dark. And we don’t have a rigorous enough compliance monitoring system in place for temperate waters, let alone the Arctic. So that gives me a lot of concern.

I think policy makers and others really have to look at this seriously and the industry itself. Obviously they’re going to be under this court-ordered environmental compliance plan, but there’s also Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Lines, etc. – they weren’t part of this settlement. So I think we really have to look seriously and evaluate our compliance schemes, especially in the Arctic. And I haven’t been given any reassurance that we’ll be in good hands when we’re operating more in the Arctic, and that’s a very real concern. That for me would be up there with actual pollution source. It’s one of the biggest deficiencies that I see right now. Because obviously the Coast Guard is doing the best they can with limited resources, but they’re not out there on the ships with every line, every cruise ship, in the engine room, etc.

And you know, practices like these that we saw with the Princess incident could foreseeably occur in the Arctic and we would not know. We wouldn’t have the ability to stop those. That’s a problem. I think Friends of the Earth are going be looking more at what can be done in terms of these regimes to see what we can do to make sure the environment is being protected. I think looking at Alaska and maybe elsewhere to see what has worked to see that the standards will be complied with is a very important way to go.


***

In December 2016, Princess Cruise Lines was fined $40 million after the company pleaded guilty to seven felony charges of illegally dumping oily waste into the sea between 2005 and 2013.

A Russian icebreaker and an Italian pianist float into the Arctic…

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From floating piano concerts to new icebreakers launching, a lot is going on in the Arctic lately.

On June 16, Russia launched the world’s largest nuclear icebreaker, Arktika, in St. Petersburg. It’s approximately two football fields long and can punch through ice thirteen feet deep. A video from Russia Today documents its maiden voyage into the Baltic Sea:



The reason the ship looks a little odd is because the 2,400-ton superstructure with cabins for 75 crewmembers will be placed into position following the launch, according to PortNews. Once this is complete, the Russian website Hi-News reports that Arktika “will not have to stand idly without business. Arktika will come to the assistance of tankers carrying raw materials from Yamal and other northern resource deposits to the East, in accordance with the economic cooperation framework framework with the governments of the Asian-Pacific region.” In other words, Arktika’s primary role will be to guide ships transporting oil and gas resources from the Russian offshore to Asia via the Northern Sea Route.


NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly traveled to St. Petersburg to watch the launch. She spoke with Sergey Kiryenko, head of Russia’s nuclear energy agency, on the VIP platform of the docks. He explained to her in Russian, “Asia is developing fast. And if ships can cut through the Arctic, they can get from Asia to Europe in a week. Russia stands to profit hugely as previously frozen waters melt. And that helps explain why when its economy is in crisis, Russia is prepared to spend upwards of a billion dollars on a supersized icebreaker.”

So while some American media and commentators see militaristic overtones in the launch of Arktika, economic imperatives are also motivating Russia’s construction of these floating megastructures. Arktika is just the first of its kind. Two more similar icebreakers will be built under Project 22220 at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg for commissioning in 2019 and 2020. By that year, the U.S. might just be getting started with constructing a new icebreaker.

In contrast to the largely commercial role of Arktika, Russia, with a tad less fanfare, launched a new, diesel-electric military icebreaker, Ilya Muromets, earlier in JuneThe vessel is Russia’s first new military icebreaker in 45 years. While Russian state-owned company Rosatomflot will operate Arktika, the Russian Navy will operate Ilya Muromets, named after the legendary medieval warrior. A decision on building more icebreakers like Ilya will be made later this year. Ilya Muromets’ launch can be watched here:



The top comment on this YouTube video? “Выражаем огромную благорданость за санкции)))))))))))”, or “We express our deep thanks for sanctions,” representing a view within Russia that sanctions have actually stimulated homegrown construction of military and commercial icebreakers like Arktika and Ilya Muromets. 

Concert on ice

Amidst all the industrial ribbon cutting and icebreaking, Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi recently performed a piece he composed called “Elegy for the Arctic” on a floating platform in the icy green waters off Svalbard. Calving ice from the Wahlenbergbreen glacier creaked, cracked, and bubbled over the musician’s melancholy piano chords. The concert, arranged by Greenpeace, formed part of its campaign to “save the Arctic.”

The environmental non-profit’s efforts to prevent oil and gas drilling in the region have lately benefited from a drop in oil prices, which have stymied the oil majors from developing resources in the region. Yet even though companies like Shell and ExxonMobil have withdrawn from Arctic exploration in recent years, they still have their eyes on the long-term prize of offshore oil.

Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips all wrote letters to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management last week during its consultation period for the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil & Gas Leasing Program. Shell expressed, “We continue to believe offshore Alaska and the broader Arctic have strong exploration potential, and that these areas could ultimately be important sources of energy.” Statoil’s letter argues, “Statoil believes that the three proposed Alaska OCS (Outer Continental Shelf) lease sales should be maintained without further access restrictions.”

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Their comments echoed those expressed in a letter by a number of prominent political officials, including President Bill Clinton’s former secretary of defense and the supreme Allied commander of NATO. The letter states, “Arctic offshore energy development will occur, whether or not the U.S. participates, as other countries pursue the Arctic’s large energy resources to meet long-term energy needs,” right before mentioning Russia and China’s Arctic activities in a wary tone. “Even China, calling itself a “near-Arctic” state, has been building new icebreakers, encouraging Chinese shipping companies to use Arctic sea routes, and making resource-oriented investments in Arctic countries,” the letter notes.

Russia and China, however, aren’t the only ones developing the Arctic. Just a couple of hundred miles from the Greenpeace piano performance off Svalbard, Norway is developing its Goliat offshore oil field, which is the northernmost in the world. And across the Arctic, Canada is completing a highway to the Beaufort Sea, which will facilitate year-round access to the immense oil and gas reserves there. But saying that Norway or Canada are developing their northern infrastructure and natural resources doesn’t cause enough of a scare to pressure BOEM into going ahead with its lease sale than mentioning Russia and China. So if claims are going to be made that the removal of the Alaskan offshore from the leasing sale would mean that America is falling behind in the Arctic, it’s worth being clear that the Russian bear and the Chinese dragon are not the only ones ahead of it in the game – and for that reason, the Arctic is not going to fall into their control anytime soon.