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