May 03, 2008

The Arctic - melting ice reveals mineral wealth

13:03 | 01/ 05/ 2008




MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Tatyana Sinitsyna) - The Russian Academy of Sciences has summed up the first results of its expedition to the Kara Sea in October 2007.

The voyage of the research vessel Akademik Mstislav Keldysh was devoted not only to national scientific programs, but also to the International Polar Year, designed to study changes in wildlife and inorganic nature, which have been caused by the global warming.

Deputy Director of the Institute of Oceanology (Russian Academy of Sciences) Professor Mikhail Flint, who headed the expedition, explained: "We have chosen the Kara Sea for several reasons. On the one hand, it is influenced by the waters flowing into the Arctic Sea from the Atlantic; on the other, it is a classic Siberian sea with an enormous shelf, into which two mighty rivers - the Ob and the Yenisey discharge their waters."

A shelf affects the Arctic climate. "The Arctic is changing under the impact of global processes, and is in turn influencing the climate. This interdependent system is affected by some threshold processes (for instance, water vertical mixing), which may cause masses of ice to melt," Professor Flint explained.

In general, in the last 12 years, the Arctic's ice cover has been reduced by 25%-27%, while ice has become thinner. In 2006-2007, it decreased by 1.5 million square kilometers. This was an unprecedented reduction in the 50 years of monitoring. It was caused by many hydrologic and hydro-physical consequences of changes in the global temperature.

The Arctic has many other interesting aspects. Its waters abound in biological resources, and its shelves harbor tremendous amounts of hydrocarbons. The melting of ice may open considerable expanses for navigation, and the Northern Sea Route will be ice-free all the year round. Professor Flint said that it is "difficult to even imagine how much this would reduce the costs of communications between Europe and America and oil transportation." This is important not only for Russia. For instance, the distance between Rotterdam and Yokohama will be 40% less compared to the modern route via the Suez Canal.

The Arctic has huge hydrocarbon reserves. Shallow shelf seas occupy 30% of its territory, 70% of which belongs to Russia.

Experts maintain that the reserves of gas hydrates and condensates in the eastern Arctic shelves are comparable to their entire resources on land. But it would be difficult to exploit them. This task will require huge investment, an entirely new technical potential, and innovative methods.

Professor Flint said that the expedition made a very interesting discovery - it was established that except in winter, the current in the Kara Sea moves along the eastern coast of Novaya Zemlya and into open sea, whereas before it was believed to flow inside the Kara "pocket."

Scientists are seriously worried about the negative consequences of economic activity on the shelves. "The life of the ecosystems in the Arctic is short -- from two to two and a half months. Unregulated navigation, active construction, and irrational mining may turn these sensitive systems into a heap of waste, which will be very hard to clean up. Any intervention into these systems is dangerous. A good example is the imprints left by SUVs in the tundra; they do not disappear for decades. Heat exchange starts in the grooves, which exerts a negative influence on the permafrost. The same may happen in the sea," Professor Flint explained.

But does the Arctic hold prospects for the formation of the powerful infrastructure of the Northern Sea Route and the commercial production of hydrocarbons? Will the trend toward warming last? If it doesn't, it will be necessary to adopt a different strategy that would ensure the profitable and safe development of Arctic territories. But nobody can give a precise answer to this question now.

Theoretically, the Arctic can melt. Scientists that study the paleo-climate (which existed tens of thousands of years ago) maintain that such temperature fluctuations occurred in the past as well. Some believe that we are at the top of the global warming process, but nobody can predict how long it will last. But one thing is clear - all developments in the Arctic are of major importance for everyone.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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