It's a frozen, white, endless landscape for nine months of the year, with majestic glaciers that are thousands of years old. But the Arctic Circle, one of the harshest climates in the world, is slowly becoming the resource capital of our humble planet. The region contains the largest iron ore and nickel mines on earth. Gold and diamond mines are already being exploited, with oil and gas next in line. How the environment will change by the exploitation of resources at the top of our world will have a cascading effect on us all.
The Arctic is huge. It covers an area the size of more than half of North America. Partly because it's so massive, five countries currently lay claim to its territory: Canada, Russia, US, Norway and Denmark. But Canada and Russia control most of the Arctic coastline (40 percent of Canada's landmass is in the Arctic), so the real, ultimate fight for dominance in the area is between these two heavyweights. And Canada is gunning to take the North Pole. With shrinking ice and the thawing permafrost, the Arctic land can now be explored. And this is exactly what these countries plan to do.
Russia has been exploiting the resources in their Arctic for decades, and doing it faster than Canada. With at least 25 mines in operation, it is one of the worst polluters of the Arctic environment. Canada has some of the strictest pollution prevention controls, so the rate of development has been more cautious – but the environmental policies aren't perfect. To exploit any mineral and oil resources in the north, there are many factors to take into consideration.
"Our environment is very fragile," says Baffin Island's Lootie Toomasi, chairman of the Arctic Fishery Alliance.
There are serious risks to both on-shore and offshore drilling (particularly deep-water drilling), with water and air pollution among the biggest risks. Shauna Morgan, senior analyst for environmental watchdog group Pembina, worries about these gaps in regulation. "There are no air quality standards developed for the oil and gas industry, for the kinds of emissions they produce," she says. But threats to the environment start even before the drilling begins.
Beaufort Sea Ice, Herschel Island, Yukon Canada. (Photo via Monte Hummel/WWF Canada)
Seismic surveys, which determine where oil is located on the seabed, create a considerable amount of noise. "There is a real issue with ocean noise," explains WWF CEO David Miller. To conduct a seismic survey, a ship tows an air gun that shoots incredibly loud blasts of compressed air through the water to the seafloor. How loud is this sound cannon? At 250 decibels (to give you an idea, the average space shuttle launch is 180 decibels) – blasted through the water every ten seconds, 24/7, for days or weeks – the volume has caused some to worry about hearing loss in marine animals.
"This is not only bad for the local fishers, but for hunters as well," says Lootie. "The Fisheries Alliance has submitted their concerns to the National Energy Board about the survey." They have yet to hear back.
According to Toomasi, a lack of resources to manage possible oil spills are another concern. To mitigate the fear, WWF has proposed that the drilling company needs to drill a same-season relief well. If a spill occurs, the relief well can take the pressure off the main drill, thereby trying to minimise the damage.
WWF has been working with local groups to monitor the effects on the ecosystem of the Arctic environment. "If you're not going to protect nature, you're not going to have a stable economy," says Miller.
Protecting the environment, while still ensuring economic development, differs from country to country. The Russian government has developed without much consideration to the land or people of the region. It has also been charging ahead with further mining and oil projects, determined to take control of the Arctic. The country has 16 deep-water ports, and 20 percent of its GDP comes from the Arctic.
"Russia doesn't have the presence of sea ice, because of the Gulf Stream, but Northern Canada has the heaviest amount of sea ice in the entire region," says Michael Byers, a UBC professor and author of Who Owns the Arctic?."It's not economically feasible to drill for oil," he continues, "but it may be in ten to 20 years."
And it is those ten to 20 years that the oil companies are banking on. Byers went on to explain: "Oil companies will sometimes explore for resources that are not economically viable, and have no intention of actually extracting any oil, except to boost their share price." At the moment, the Arctic's remoteness, short season and sea ice are all factors to preventing serious resource extraction – but all of this is changing.
As the earth warms, companies are venturing to the Canadian north, and with wells already marked they will be searching for black gold. The prospectors will keep coming.
Currently, Imperial Oil is seeking a permit to drill in the Beaufort Sea. "The Beaufort oil proposal is in some of the most deepest waters of anything that has ever been done in the Arctic," says Miller. The proposal for the well is in a very sensitive area, a rich feeding ground for fish, beluga whales and polar bears. This is where WWF has proposed that Imperial Oil needs to drill a seasonal relief well.
The Arctic is undergoing a profound change; it's "being fundamentally transformed through the acidification of the oceans, massive disruption to the ecosystem that affects the lives of people living there", says Michael Byers. Exploiting the resources in the Canadian Arctic is a tightrope walk – it's slow and deliberate, and each step is tricky. The communities are in favour of boosting their economy, but not at the cost of their environment and livelihood.
Both Canada and Russia are claiming the North Pole as part of their territorial domain, if they are able to prove that the continental shelf from their country extends all the way up. The United Nations will be the governing body that will decide which country can claim the pole or whether it will remain international waters.
But the concern over seabed mining and oil drilling is a serious one. "The ocean is like our farm. We rely on it for our living, for our food," explains Lootie Toomasi of the fishery alliance. But these farms in the Arctic Circle contain 30 percent of the world's oil and gas supply – and some of the largest mineral and metal deposits.
As the sea ice in the Arctic Circle melts and water passages open up, this vast untouched land inspires El Dorado–like visions, and international prospectors are circling like hawks.