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5 July 2017

Study Warns of Potential Widespread Pollution as Arctic Sea Ice Drift Continues to Accelerate

Ice floes in the Arctic are speeding up; in fact, as a result of climate change, the rate of Arctic sea ice drift has accelerated by 14% per decade since the 1980s, according to a study published this week in the journal Earth’s Future by a team of Columbia and McGill university researchers. This acceleration is responsible for pushing approximately 1 million square kilometres of ice out into the open ocean each year, crossing between the exclusive economic zones of various countries in the process.

With the massive reserves of natural resources such as oil and gas known to be present in the Arctic (approximately 90 billion barrels of oil, 1.7 trillion cubic feet of gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, according to the U.S. Geological Survey), nearby countries have spotted an opportunity in the changing Arctic climate and are beginning to look towards harvesting these reserves locked deep below the Arctic Ocean and surrounding waters.

This could be setting the stage for a major environmental disaster, the aforementioned study warns.

Specifically the study warns of a “nightmare scenario” whereby “when accidents occur, as they have in every major oil-field (Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, etc.), the extreme cold, seasonal darkness, remoteness, and presence of sea ice will make containment and recovery extremely difficult, if not impossible.”

If an oil spill should occur in an area in which sea ice is present or forming, the drift of said sea ice will also help it to spread further, carrying it across the oceans and impacting on various countries in the process. Study co-author Stephanie Pfirman, a researcher at Barnard College and Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, explains:

“If you have a Deepwater Horizon-type spill where sea ice is forming, the oil can get into the ice and be transported to another country’s waters.”

“We all know that pollution in a watershed ends up in lakes and rivers downstream,” said Bruno Tremblay, another of the study’s co-authors. “But I don’t think the concept of an ‘iceshed’ is fully appreciated. The countries around the Arctic are all connected.”

Although the issue is exacerbated by current rates of global warming, the study did also state that the effects may actually be somewhat offset by, you guessed it, global warming. This may sound contradictory, but further warming could potentially shorten the reach of ice floes by increasing the rate at which they melt. This still doesn’t quite solve the issue however, as ocean currents too carry such pollutants around the globe.

The only viable solution is for the surrounding countries to work together in an ongoing effort to safeguard the coastal waters where ice forms, as well as developing strict regulations concerning the size, placement, and operation of Arctic oil fields. The Arctic Council is making moves in the right direction, but we’re still some way off an amicable agreement between all the nations involved.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.