The Arctic killers

The scramble for the Arctic's oil and gas has begun. Marek Kohn reports exclusively from Svalbard on

The first thing you see of Barentsburg is a frayed plume of black smoke, and this also turns out to be one of its few signs of life. Although the town ranks as the second largest settlement in the Svalbard archipelago, far to the north of Norway and just to the south of the Arctic ice, it can muster only about 900 inhabitants. Many are underground, mining the coal they burn to keep the place going. This is an offshore Russian colony, hanging on in an undead Soviet town as the coal reserves run out.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, the population is swelled by about 10 per cent because of a party of British teenagers who have won a trip to Svalbard in Ice Edge, a competition for environmental projects organised by Edge, the educational foundation. They have come to meet scientists from different nations, see polar bears and stand on the rim of the polar ice, but today they are being reminded that underneath the northern quest for scientific knowledge lies the search for fossil fuel.

A bust of Lenin glares at them from a distance, as the guide points out "the only forest on Svalbard" - a fading mural of Russian birches, to help the miners feel at home. Those men did not really come all this way to dig coal, but to fly the flag. Under the Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920, Norway has sovereignty over the archipelago, but the other signatories have rights of access. During the Soviet period, the state's principal strategic interest in the region was military; today it is the fields of gas and oil through which Russia intends to assert its global influence. Nearly a quarter of Russia's reserves lie off its northern coasts, and it hopes to gain ten billion tonnes more by demonstrating that its continental shelf is 1.2 million square kilometres bigger than is accepted at present. That is why, a few days ago, a Russian vessel, visiting the North Pole as part of International Polar Year, sent down mini-submarines to plant a titanium Russian flag on the ocean floor. This old-fashioned gesture made headlines around the world.

Poisoned winds

Industry is already inescapable up here. At Ny-Ålesund, a cluster of international scientific stations - from Chinese to Dutch, the latter represented by a man in yellow clogs who studies geese - the school students meet Geir Gabriel sen, an ecotoxicologist. He tells them how the Arctic is becoming a "sink" for pollutants from the south, which build up in the fatty tissues of Arctic seabirds, polar bears and other predators. These days, the winds from the south are blowing for longer, increasing the exposure of Arctic wildlife to toxins from Europe and elsewhere.

Wildlife may also be exposed increasingly to industrial chemicals from closer at hand. Arctic technologists at Svalbard's University Centre are studying the properties of ice to assess the prospects for pipelines and drilling rigs. Offshore gas and oil extraction in the Arctic will push the limits of technology in an environment that is both extreme and fragile.

The current centre of attention in the Arctic energy landscape is the Shtokman field, off north-west Russia in the Barents Sea. Russia's energy giant Gazprom has selected Total, the French oil concern, as a partner in exploiting the reserves, which it plans to start piping in 2013. Shtokman is big, but its 3.7 trillion cubic metres of gas are only a small part of Russia's immense hydrocarbon deposits, which amount to 45 per cent of the world's known gas reserves and a fifth of the world's oil. Its Arctic regions also contain deposits of precious and base metals.

Looking at a map of the Arctic with the North Pole at the centre, one sees that this is Russia's natural hemisphere. Looking at the distribution of its Arctic mineral resources, one can imagine a Russian drive to intensify the industrialisation of this frontier as global warming thaws it. Similar opportunities may open up all around the hemisphere. At the first Arctic Frontiers conference, in Norway in January, Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the European Environment Agency, warned against "another Klondike" in the Arctic.

Indeed, all across the top of the world, the encroachment of industry into the permafrost is well under way. On the Russian Sakhalin peninsula, north of Japan, Shell is pursuing oil and gas extraction in the habitat of the world's last hundred or so Pacific grey whales. In partnership with Gazprom, Mitsubishi and Matsui, it is constructing two further oil platforms, two 800km pipelines and an LPG processing plant. Environmentalists claim the development has destroyed fishing areas and, with the influx of male workers, brought a wave of prostitution and HIV.

The Yamal peninsula in north-western Siberia holds Russia's largest natural gas reserves. Gazprom hopes to start extracting from the Bovanenkovskoye deposit by 2011-2012. "At Yamal, we are seeing serious environmental effects, with roads being driven through the reducing permafrost," says Rasmus Hansson of WWF Norway. "There are huge oil leaks as pipelines start to sink into the melting frost. The ecological consequences are massive."

The going is slow for Russia's hydrocarbon industry in the high north, and the industry is also coming under scrutiny in North America, which consumes more than 25 per cent of the world's oil. Last year, BP had to close the Alaskan Prudhoe Bay oilfield, 250 miles inside the Arctic circle and the largest reserve of oil in the US, after a spill caused by corroded pipelines. For environmentalists, the silver lining is that it makes drilling in the neighbouring Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - a long-held ambition of congressional Republicans - politically impossible for now.

Frederic Hauge, president of the Oslo-based environmental organisation Bellona, sees such industrial difficulties as a valuable respite. "The Arctic is struggling with nuclear contamination, toxins, pollution and climate change," he says. "Oil and gas exploration puts a huge amount of pressure on an extremely stressed ecosystem. The Arctic is like a canary in a coal mine: we see the effects of global warming there earlier than anywhere else. It's very scary. Oil and gas companies face a moral responsibility to act: we need to combat climate change with all the weapons we have. Norway faces a global responsibility to the world as guardian of this precious ecosystem: we simply can't look at this in terms of regional and personal gain. My hope is that oil and gas companies can be held off a little longer . . . Keeping oil and gas out of the Arctic is the single most important thing we can do."

Political stresses

When Americans looked at northern polar maps in the 1950s, they saw the Soviet Union reaching round the globe to encircle them. Today, the global threat arises wherever people burn carbon, but it would be unwise to overlook the potential political stresses in the Arctic. Across the Russian half of the hemisphere, a political-industrial complex appears to be taking shape in which state and commercial interests are in tegrated. Norway will also keep StatoilHydro, its major energy player, under state control. The Arctic states have a strong sense of their national interests in the region, and may not always live together as harmoniously as the international scientists at Ny-Ålesund do, eating together in the mess hall.

Not all the effects of climate change in the Arctic are yet clear. There may be more snow in future, for instance, and that might protect the remaining ice by reflecting the sun's light away. As the glaciers melt, pouring fresh water into the sea, they may slow the great ocean circulation that bathes Europe in warm water from the south, offsetting the greenhouse effect. The effects on sea level are another matter again. Recently the Nasa climate scientist James Hansen and his colleagues warned of an "imminent peril" that melting in the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets might run beyond human control, leading to "devastating" sea level rises of several metres per century.

What is clear, however, is that the Arctic sea ice is shrinking, at its summer minimum, by about 8 per cent per decade: about 500,000 square miles have gone since the late 1970s. Svalbard's university is on the shore of Isfjorden ("ice fjord"), but for the past two winters it has been free of ice, and as its annual report notes, the university's supplies have been delivered by sea. The average temperature last year was 5° higher than the average over the past 50 years. As the research results come in from the International Polar Year, the world's polar scientists will map the changes that have occurred since the results from its predecessor, the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, in unprecedented detail. According to Hansson, the environmental hazards facing the Arctic can still be countered. "A growing num ber of governments are admitting a problem," he says. "Although the problem is increasingly serious, there is increased reason for optimism."

The fjord and the polluted wildlife show how everything is amplified here. Animals, needing protection against the cold, have more fatty tissue, in which toxins accumulate. Climate modelling indicates that if the world as a whole gets 2°C warmer, the average temperature in the Arctic will rise by over 6°C. As the scientific briefing for the International Polar Year points out, changes happen earlier at the poles. The Arctic may be a "sentinel" for the planet, where scientists can ob serve tomorrow's changes today.

As the ice recedes, the forests will march north. There may never be real birches at Barentsburg, but trees will replace tundra across much of northern Canada and Arctic Russia. Much of the remaining tundra will become "polar desert". According to a WWF speaker at the Arctic Frontiers conference, some 60 per cent of the tundra will be lost one way or the other, and the reindeer herds with it. That will put paid to what remains of the traditional way of life for those of the Arctic's four million inhabitants who still herd the reindeer. It will also destabilise the foundations of the modern way of Arctic life, with buildings collapsing and roads fragmenting as the permafrost melts.

Tourist footprints

The tourists are heading north, as well as the engineers and the forests. At Ny-Ålesund, the northernmost settlement in the world, the Ice Edge students have to wait for two large cruise ships to move away before they can land. Each time these ships visit, the scientists' environ mental measurements are spoiled by a tourist spike. We all arrive with green intentions, but can't help leaving our footprints.

The students have ideas for reducing their carbon footprint, from domestic energy monitors to blinds fitted with solar panels. Most are green, but one is yellow. Nathan Allen, Chris Balding and Jess Fok of Eltham College in south London suggest that infernal element, sulphur, as an alternative to coal. They've got it all worked out - immense reserves, high efficiency, huge demand for the acid by-product and, in a nice biotech flourish, bacteria from Icelandic volcanoes to digest the sulphur back out of the leftover acid.

At Barentsburg, this bold flight of chemical imagination strikes a chord - with Philip Pullman's reimagined Svalbard in Northern Lights, in which Tartar slaves work the "fire-mines" for the ruling polar bears, who in battle launch flaming sulphur from their "fire-hurlers". The mine itself stands as a reminder of some unpleasant truths about burning carbon.

During their trip, the students see one polar bear, stalking the shore in the all-night sun. In the real Arctic, the prospects for its kind are about as gloomy as Barentsburg's. As the ice goes, so will the seals, which need ice floes on which to pup; and as the seals go, so will the bears that feed on them. And as the ice goes, the more oil and gas will be extracted from under the sea, to make its contribution to global warming, which will melt more ice, and so on. Not only will it become easier to drill for oil and gas, but it will also become easier to transport extracted fuels and minerals across the Arctic by sea. The Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific could become a commercially viable route, as could a Northeast Passage north of Russia. If warming continues, as some forecasters fear, ships could eventually sail straight over a watery North Pole, with no icebreakers required.

Additional research by Matthew Holehouse

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix