An Arctic boom in research

Ocean tracts in the far north are thought to be replete with fossil fuels. As well as environmental scientists, the polar region is attracting political powers keen to exploit oil and gas reserves. David Adam reports from Norway.

Lying barely 650 miles (nearly 1,050 kilometres) from the North Pole and shrouded in freezing darkness for several months of the year, the Norwegian islands of Svalbard make an unlikely property hotspot. Yet at Ny-Alesund, a tiny former coal-mining settlement on the west side, an international boom is under way.

The Chinese have moved in, bringing with them two marble lions that stand guard outside their Arctic Yellow River research station, and so, too, have Japan and South Korea. Scientists from India’s first expedition to the Arctic are poised to join them. In June, a visiting delegation from Washington talked of beefing up United States interests at Ny-Alesund, while the Russians are in negotiations.

Should, as some on Svalbard expect, the two former cold war superpowers move in, they will join established bases run by Norway, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Britain.

On the surface, the multinational invasion of Ny-Alesund — little more than a bumpy airstrip and a scattering of colourful wooden buildings — is in the name of science. Experts who visit Svalbard are in an ideal position to study the atmosphere, glaciers and the region’s unique wildlife.

The Svalbard islands have become a popular summer tourist destination, particularly with Britons. In early August 2007, a group of 17 visitors were injured when their ship got too close to a melting glacier. In April last year, the British Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, made a two-day trip to the archipelago’s glaciers to witness the effects of climate change.

But for the growing international community turning the islands into a base, there is another agenda: the region’s oil and gas reserves.

“An awful lot of the reason that countries are here is flag waving,” says Nick Cox, an Arctic and Antarctic veteran who runs the British station at Ny-Alesund for the government-funded Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). “The Arctic has become very important politically and that will only increase the pressure for countries to be represented.”

The Chinese lions face east, but the real story is to the north. The Russians recently fired the latest symbolic shots in a long-running battle for control over huge tracts of the Arctic Ocean surrounding the North Pole, below which oil and gas is believed to lie. Canada and Denmark are preparing similar claims, which rely on showing that a chain of underwater mountains that runs across the region are connected to their respective continental shelves.

Norway is convinced the sea around Svalbard also harbours reserves of oil and gas. And as the frozen cover of ice that once protected the ocean from drill ships retreats further north — this year looks set for a record low — nations are jostling for position to exploit them. Several oil companies already sponsor research in the region.

Kim Holmen, head of research at the Norwegian Polar Institute, said: “Everything on Svalbard is sticky. It is all about politics and there are other dimensions that must be considered.”

Norway was granted sovereignty of the Svalbard archipelago, which is 300 miles (480 kilometres) off its north coast, in 1925, but an unusual clause grants other nations equal rights to its natural resources. Fast-forward nearly a century, and Norway claims that the agreement covers terrestrial matters only, and so does not include the anticipated offshore fossil-fuel bounty, which it argues will be inside its territorial waters. Other countries, including Britain, take a different view, and the British Foreign Office sparked a minor diplomatic row last autumn when it failed to invite Norway to a meeting with the United States and Russia to discuss the future of the islands.

Ny-Alesund is no stranger to such political games. Norway, world leaders in hydroelectric power, ran an unprofitable coal mine at Ny-Alesund for decades, until an explosion in 1962 killed 21 people and forced its closure. Attention then switched to science, and Norway, Britain and France have had bases at Ny-Alesund for years. Critics have argued that such scientific efforts are an expensive and unproductive cover for strategic goals — an accusation that has also dogged research in Antarctica.

For the Antarctic, that changed in the 1980s when British scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer, sparking worldwide action and a rapid ban on the CFC chemicals responsible. Now, scientists working at Ny-Alesund believe their research has been vindicated too, by the emergence of another worldwide environmental crisis: climate change.

“The Arctic warms first and it warms the fastest,” says Dr Holmen. “If we don’t want to be surprised by what is going to happen, then we need to study the Arctic.”

The state of the region's ice is well known. The mighty Kongsvegen glacier — a few miles down the coast from Ny-Alesund — is shrinking fast. Well documented, too, is the plight of the polar bear, a clear and present danger on Svalbard that forces scientists doing nothing more hazardous that counting birds nests to carry a .44 Magnum handgun.

But global warming can still spring a surprise or two: just ask Nia Whiteley and Sam Rastrick, two biologists from the University of Wales, in Bangor, who arrived in Svalbard via Tromsø, a town on the Norwegian mainland well inside the Arctic Circle. Looking for amphipods, shrimp-like crustaceans along the Tromsø shoreline, they were forced to negotiate day-trippers enjoying unseasonably warm weather.  

Dr Whiteley said: “We turned up in our Arctic survival gear and there were families having barbecues on the beach and people jumping into the sea in their shorts.”

There are signs of change at Ny-Alesund as well. The neighbouring fjord, which shimmers in the constant daylight, has failed to freeze over during the previous two winters — although scientists think this is due to unusual wind conditions and an influx of warm water, rather than a direct result of rising temperatures.

Despite its pristine appearance, the Arctic atmosphere is filthy. Pollutants are swept to the top of the world by air currents, so air filters at Ny-Alesund reveal telltale streaks of soot, while levels of mercury and industrial chemicals (such as flame retardants) can be higher than in the countries further south that produce them. Scientists have long known these substances can work their way up the food chain to the top predators, such as the polar bears. Now they have found evidence that these chemicals are having a damaging effect.

Geir Gabrielsen, a biologist with the Norwegian Polar Institute, said: “We’ve found that the gulls exposed to the most chemicals take much longer to find food. As scientists, all we can do is observe and point out these changes. It is up to the politicians and the people to decide what to do about it.”

Homepage photo by Kenyai

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007