UN Secretary General addresses Arctic Circle: “There’s no Planet B”


United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the press conference following this speech to the Arctic Circle assembly, with former Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson in the background. Photo: Mia Bennett/Cryopolitics

Yesterday at the Arctic Circle conference in Iceland’s booming capital, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accepted the first-ever Arctic Prize from the country’s former president, Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson, for his leadership in international climate diplomacy.

In a conference where presenters speak in excited volumes about the potential for Arctic development, Ban Ki-moon called the region “a place where see promise and peril in close proximity.” He spent most of his 20-minute speech drawing attention to the threat of climate change. In front of a packed auditorium with attendees from over 40 countries, he expressed, “Arctic melting affects Miami, Mumbai, Shanghai, coastal cities – and so much else. When the Arctic suffers, the world feels the pain.”

The outgoing Secretary General drew on his personal observations of melting glaciers in Iceland, Svalbard, and Greenland and the wealth of scientific research on climate change to convey the urgency and scale of the problem. “The Arctic is melting before our eyes,” he noted. “In a single day last month, the Arctic melted at three times its normal rate. In three days, it lost ice the size of England.”

Apocalyptically, he warned: “There’s no Plan B because there’s no Planet B.”

But overall, Ban Ki-moon was optimistic about the ability for the world’s nations to combat climate change. He stressed the importance of the COP 21 agreement reached in Paris last December, which 197 parties have now signed. “The Paris Agreement is an agreement out of compromise, but it’s the best…and most ambitious way as circumstances allow.” The treaty underscores the world’s commitment to limiting global temperature rise to less than 2°C and binds its signatories to lowering their emissions at nationally determined levels.

Greenland: the elephant in the room


The UN Secretary General addressing the Arctic Circle assembly, with the former president of Iceland in the shadows on the right. Photo: Mia Bennett/Cryopolitics

Yet for all the talk of Greenland’s melting glaciers in the Secretary General’s speech, he failed to mention the fact that the Arctic island is one of the only countries in the world that has not signed onto COP 21. Saudi Arabia, which just reclaimed the title of the world’s largest oil producer, is another rare non-signatory. Even the major oil producing countries of the U.S., Russia, and Nigeria have signed.

Greenland’s professed inability to afford the treaty’s terms exemplifies the Arctic paradox: that even as climate change proceeds and permanently alters traditional ways of life, it also opens up new opportunities for development – many of which Greenland’s government is hoping to realize.

As the country’s foreign minister told The Guardian in January, “The economic situation gives us no choice but to develop mining and oil. We would most likely [seek] a territorial reservation. It would be very costly if we were to submit to a binding agreement.”

Foreign investment from companies based in faraway countries like China and Australia may one day help open up the rich mineral resources on land and oil and gas resources offshore. Extraction of these non-renewable resources, which would inevitably emit a significant amount of greenhouse gases, may allow Greenland to become fully independent from Denmark and do away with the ~$660 million block grant it receives every year.

Ban Ki-moon reminded the audience, “As in developing countries, those who have contributed least to climate change are affected the most.” But going forward, developing countries like Greenland that cannot afford to leave their fossil fuel resources in the ground may one day be contributing more per capita to carbon emissions.

Iceland and the promise of technology

In a way, Greenland represents the opposite of Iceland, an Arctic nation that prides itself on its roaring hydroelectric power stations and geothermal energy generation. 99% of the tiny island’s energy comes from these two sources.

In a press conference following his speech, Ban Ki-moon said, “We ask Iceland to do much more.” Citing the country’s strengths in renewable energy and technologies, he emphasized, “We count on Iceland’s strong engagement for sustainable development.”

Iceland is a country that has alternately been cursed and blessed by its geography over the centuries. Currently, its rugged landscape, considered so unforgiving in previous centuries, has put it at the top of the list for the increasing number of tourists seeking extreme destinations. The steep, glaciated terrain also makes Iceland an ideal place for implementing hydropower technologies. Since 1969, Iceland has constructed numerous dams to provide cheap, low-carbon energy for controversial aluminum smelting facilities.

In essence, the country’s poster child status for sustainable development is due to a fortuitous combination of geography and technology. Unlike Greenland, Iceland, unburdened by a pressing economic need to develop its fossil fuels resources (though it is still quietly exploring them with the help of a Chinese state-owned corporation), has signed onto COP 21.

At the end of the day, technology, rather than a political agreement, may represent humanity’s last best hope to tackling climate change. The Secretary General had said earlier in his speech, “But as far as technology – you don’t know what tomorrow brings.” For Greenland and others parts of the Arctic that are banking their economic futures on the carbon-intensive industries of oil, gas, and mining, a technological rather than political solution to climate change may be the only way out.

The continental shelf: geological, legal, or geopolitical?

With Shell receiving conditional approval to drill in the Chukchi Sea in offshore Alaska, the phrase “continental shelf” has come up a lot lately. The term also appears whenever territorial disputes in the Arctic make the news. But maps such as this one published by the Economist don’t exactly clarify what the continental shelf is, nor how its geography and terrain are literally at the bottom of so many disputes in the Arctic and indeed worldwide. So how can we better depict this underwater terrain, especially up north?

The International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean (IBCAO) is the gold standard when it comes to cartographically displaying the texture of the continental shelf in the Arctic. The map has a resolution of 500 meters and much of the data comes from state-of-the-art multibeam surveys. You can read more about how the map was made in a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters in 2012.

However, what the map doesn’t display is geopolitical data. It’s interesting, for instance, to overlay the outlines of countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) onto the bathymetric data. But before we do that, let’s look a bit more at the shelf’s topography.

The geological shelf

Geology or politics at work? USCGC Healy (R) and Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent (L) mapping the Arctic seafloor in 2011. Photo: University of New Hampshire/NOAA.

Geology or politics at work? USCGC Healy (R) and Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent (L) mapping the Arctic seafloor in 2011. Photo: University of New Hampshire/NOAA.

Using the ETOPO1 1 Arc-Minute Global Relief Model available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I made a simple map in ArcGIS displayed at the top of this post of the continental shelves in the Arctic.* While the continental shelf exists in reality as an underwater extension of a continent, it’s important to remember that even the idea of a continent is a social construct. If we were to redraw the world’s continents from an underwater, continental-shelf based perspective, we likely wouldn’t divide North America and Asia.

With this in mind, it becomes clear why it will be so hard to divvy up the continental shelf. Due to the presence of countries on top of the continental shelves, they will ultimately not be so much geologically as politically defined. Is the much-disputed Lomonosov Ridge, for instance, an extension of the Canadian, Russian, or Danish continental shelf? The fact that each country could claim it based on supposedly objective bathymetric evidence demonstrates the malleability of geology to political aims.

Yet divide the shelves they will, and that’s because sizable deposits of oil, gas, and other natural resources lie in wait. The continental shelves is where all Arctic offshore drilling will occur, with drilling looking something like this Gazprom diagram. As the U.S. Geological Survey stated in 2008, “The extensive Arctic continental shelves may constitute the geographically largest unexplored prospective area for petroleum remaining on Earth.” Their survey did not include the oil and gas resources that might lie in the seabed in the middle of the Arctic Ocean where the continental shelves drop off. By the time technology reaches a state where deepwater drilling in the Central Arctic Ocean becomes possible, humanity will hopefully have transitioned away from relying on fossil fuels.

Viewed in 3D, the nearly “landlocked” nature of the Arctic Ocean becomes evident, too. The Arctic Ocean is the world’s smallest, shallowest ocean. Its low average depth of ~1,000 meters is partly a result of the extension of many continental shelves, especially Russia’s, far into the ocean. The oil and gas exploration taking place on the shelf right now is therefore happening in relatively shallow water. Shell’s plans this summer on the Alaskan continental shelf entail drilling in water depths of about 42 meters. This is much shallower than deepwater drilling, which is typically characterized as occurring in depths of more than 150 meters. While Arctic offshore oil and gas drilling faces a number of environmental challenges, deepwater is not one of them at the moment.

A 3D perspective also illustrates the degree to which Russia faces the north. Its major rivers, the Ob, Yenisey, and Lena, drain out to the Arctic Ocean. The image below reveals how the Ob River cuts a chasm into the tundra as it rushes north. In the Soviet era, some politicians and scientists sought to reverse the northward flow of the country’s three major rivers so that they would irrigate the deserts of Central Asia for agriculture instead of “wastefully” flowing into the Arctic Ocean. Now, as the country turns north again and looks out towards a warming ocean with new possibilities for shipping and natural resource extraction, many Russians may be glad that their rivers still flow to the “northern icy sea,” as the Arctic Ocean is called in Russian (северный ледовитый океан).

The legal shelf

The continental shelf is knee-deep in legalities, clauses, and commissions. Article 76 in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines the continental shelf of a Coastal State as:

“the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance.”

The treaty was adopted in 1982, riding the crest of an upswing in the usage of the phrase “continental shelf” in English language publications as evinced by this Google ngram.

It’s hard to materially grasp the notion of the continental shelf when it is defined in terms of nautical miles, baselines, and continental margins – terms unfamiliar to most laypeople, which is why maps that integrate geology and geopolitics are important. In the Arctic, the two are inseparable, after all. The territorial disputes there all hinge on each Arctic coastal state’s claims to their respective continental shelf. Once a claim is recognized, a country earns the exclusive right to explore and exploit its resources, both living and non-living.

Claims are submitted to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UN CLCS), which is composed of 21 mostly male engineers, geologists, hydrographers, and other scientists from around the world. Members are elected for five year terms, with the current term lasting from 2012-2017. All of the commission’s members have real jobs, meaning that the UN CLCS is a side gig for them. That may explain why the commission’s website hasn’t been updated since September 2013. This group makes recommendations on country’s submitted claims, but they are expressly apolitical and often will not consider data from disputed areas. As such, countries can opt to only submit data in undisputed areas, coordinate claims with neighboring countries, or even make a joint claim.

Once a country’s submitted geological information is deemed scientifically sound, it is up to neighboring states to mutually delimit their borders. The United Nations will not delimit any borders on the continental shelf. If the countries can’t agree between themselves, they can go to the International Court of Justice – as happened in 1993 between Denmark and Norway over the area between Greenland and Jan Mayen. Canadian law professor Michael Byers has written a book called International Law and the Arctic that goes into the various submission options in much more detail for readers who are interested (and the section on continental shelf claim submissions is freely available to read on Google Books, too).

The geopolitical shelf

Now we can take a look at the bathymetric data with some geopolitical data overlaid. As the map above reveals, Russia has by far the largest continental shelf of any Arctic country. It’s no surprise that the country has moved the quickest of all the Arctic coastal states in exploiting its offshore oil and gas, for it simply has a much bigger amount of offshore territory to exploit. In Canada, by contrast, the country’s archipelago almost extends to the northernmost edge of the continental shelf. Delineations of the continental shelves and the respective EEZs also affect where current oil and gas exploration can take place. On the one hand, resolving territorial claims can be conducive to extraction since it removes gray areas from the map. Transnational corporations will simply not drill for oil in areas where the legal regime is unclear. On the other hand, corporations do have to be acutely aware of where EEZs lie so as not to wander into another country’s zone. In 2012, Shell’s leases in the Burger Prospect in the Chukchi Sea, issued by the U.S., stopped just before the boundary with the Russian EEZ. (This year’s exploration plans will take place a little bit farther west.) 

Shell's leases in 2012 go almost all the way up to the Russian EEZ.
A map of continental shelves doesn’t just hint at where future territorial claims and oil and gas exploration may take place. It also helps shed light on past movements of humans. For instance, Alaska and Chukotka, in eastern Russia, pretty much look like they lie on one extended sunken landmass, which some refer to as Beringia. This name evokes the migration that humans from Northeast Asia made across the Bering Strait to North America some 18,000 years ago. Back then, such political constructs of nations and continents didn’t exist. Instead, a grassy tundra covered the land for as far as the eye could see. Today, Beringia is an undersea relic of the Ice Age, with beluga whales and walruses swimming above the watery landscape once crossed by humans. Imagine how the geopolitics of the Arctic would differ today if the sea level was a few hundred feet lower and the continental shelves of the Arctic rose above the surface of the water.


*After making these maps, I came across GEBCO’s higher-resolution 30-arc second model gridded bathymetric chart of the oceans, which I will use in future maps.

Commodifying nature: The price of ice

Northern Norway. (c) Mia Bennett 2013.

January sunset in Northern Norway. (c) Mia Bennett 2013.

A graduate student recently interviewed me for his dissertation on Russia, the Arctic, oil and gas. During the interview, he asked me what I believed was the single most important Arctic resource. The answer could have been oil, gas, minerals, fisheries, or any other number of commodities. I responded that oil and gas are probably the most valuable in dollar amounts based on their current prices and the sheer amount that exists in the Arctic. However, their price could drop significantly if there is a revolution in energy production, such as the whisperings going around about drilling for methane hydrates not just in the Arctic’s permafrost, but even in the seafloor in countries almost entirely lacking in conventional oil and gas of their own, like Japan.

But I also responded that what really struck me about the question, and about many discussions on the Arctic, is the desire to commodify the region’s every resource. The Arctic is talked about in terms of barrels of oil, British thermal units of natural gas, and tons of iron ore. The ice cap is measured, poked, and prodded with endless arrays of instruments, from old-school rulers to state-of-the-art satellites. (The Germans over at the Alfred Wegener Institute, unsurprisingly, have a website cataloging all the various ways of studying sea ice.)

It’s unsurprising that we talk about oil and gas in such a quantifiable manner. What’s more surprising is that the trend to monetize everything, particularly on resource frontiers like the Arctic, is spilling over into nature itself. For instance ,the United Nations’ program, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), “is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.”

REDD+, an expansion of the program, goes further and attempts to incentivize people to conserve and sustainably manage forests. The value of forests’ carbon storage is done “by implementing Measuring and Monitoring Systems compliant with the [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s] Measuring, Reporting and Verification concept.” Just reading that sentence strips away the ineffable, seductive mystique of forests. I’d argue the sentence is even more dismaying than President Ronald Reagan’s infamous statement about the creation of California’s Redwood National Park: “A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?” At least a tree was still a tree then, and not a dollar sign or merely a carbon sink.

The UN website continues to say that REDD+ is about “making the private sector part of the solution by providing the kinds of market signals, mechanisms and incentives to encourage investments that manage and conserve the world’s nature-based resources rather than mining them. So it is about making money and conserving the planet too and if REDD can be structured right, the money will be made not just by carbon traders, but also by developing countries and communities for providing the forest-based carbon storage service.”

“Carbon traders” must be one of the strangest new occupations to arise in the 21st century. Little by little, they are replacing indigenous peoples and local farmers as stewards of the world’s forests, which have come to be viewed as carbon sinks. The phrase “carbon trader” sounds like it could not be more detached from what it is to pad barefoot on the soft underbelly of a forest or to hear a tree tumble through the undergrowth as the lumberjacks do their work. Even though carbon traders’ supposed aim is conservation, the real aim is making money.

Uncontacted tribes in the Amazon. (c) Gleison Miranda, FUNAI/Survival

The forest stewards of yesterday. Uncontacted tribes in the Amazon. (c) Gleison Miranda, FUNAI/Survival

The Arctic has no forests, so one might think it could escape the clutch of commodification. But permafrost, which the Arctic has in great supply, stores some 850 billion tons of carbon. It’s therefore conceivable that carbon traders could one day make their way north.

So far, permafrost has not been perceived as a commodity in the way that forests are. A tree can become a chair, a roof, or a piece of paper, while permafrost can’t do much more than sit in the ground.

Now, though, with the hype surrounding methane hydrates, even permafrost could have a value based on its carbon storage. A country or community could be paid not to develop the methane hydrates locked into the ice based on its carbon value. Commodifying not just hydrocarbons and minerals, but even the surrounding environment, whether forests, ice, or even whales, however, risks further alienating humanity from nature. Quantifiable capital replaces unquantifiable natural integrity. Welcome to the dollar store of planet earth, where even ice has a price.

After a successful trial extraction of methane hydrates on the North Slope of Alaska last year, the U.S. Department of Energy funded 14 new research projects across the country to look into the resource. Methane hydrates are a potentially huge source of energy – more than twice the world’s known fossil fuels. Releasing more methane into the atmosphere by extracting the resource could be a disaster for the climate, but a potential boon for coastal countries like Japan, which has lots of methane hydrates locked into its seafloor. If the only way to prevent deforestation and development of resources like methane hydrates is by attaching a price to invisible (but important) carbon, then humanity has lost the power of imagination and the ability to see the value in something for its own sake.

To answer the question initially posed by the interviewer, I think the most important Arctic resource is its magical, unique landscape. It has captivated – and provided for, each in a different way – indigenous peoples, explorers both foolish and wise, and modern television audiences for centuries. Even if all the ice were to melt, at least we can take some solace in the fact that the northern lights will still be there.

The Northern Lights in A, Lofoten Islands, Norway. (c) Mia Bennett 2013

The Northern Lights in A, Lofoten Islands, Norway. (c) Mia Bennett 2013