Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Northwest Passage and You

I woke up this morning dreaming of the problem of the Northwest Passage. If you're somehow not aware of it, here's a quick summary:

The North Polar ice cap is completely different from the South Polar ice cap. At the South Pole we have the continent of Antarctica, a giant frozen land mass that is covered with ice and snow. The North Polar ice cap doesn't have any land under it, aside from the northernmost reaches of Russia, Canada, and Greenland around the fringes. Otherwise it's all ocean, all water, covered over with a thick sheet of ice and snow. But there's no way to travel from one side to the other making use of this water, other than by sled over the frozen parts or by submarine under them. Explorers sought an all-water route through this region, dubbed the Northwest Passage, for many years, but ice has always blocked the way, with occasional brief seasonal openings.

But that's changing. As climate change advances, particularly the effects of global warming, the North Polar ice cap is melting. We've all seen the heartbreaking images of stranded Polar Bears left to starve or drown as they find themselves floating around on ice floes rather than waiting by holes in the ice waiting for ringed seals to surface and get eaten.

The problem of the melting ice caps is complex. The bright white ice caps serve to regulate the Earth's temperature by reflecting a significant portion of the sunlight that reaches the polar regions. As the poles melt and shrink, they reflect less sunlight, and the rate of heating increases. Meanwhile the melting ice dilutes the salt content of the ocean around it, reducing its thermal carrying capacity, threatening to shut down or strongly affect the ocean currents that convey warm ocean water from the tropics to the Northwestern coast of Europe, keeping places like Ireland and Scotland and Norway habitable.

So melting ice caps are bad, right?

Some plans have been suggested to put the brakes on the rate at which the ice caps are melting. Some are harebrained, crackpot schemes that may do more harm than good, if anyone can figure out a way to make them work. Others are even less promising.

Meanwhile, the Neocons and others who have finally decided to stop denying the reality of climate change have suggested that "market forces" will have to solve the problem. How will this work? Well, they don't know. They just tell us to have faith in the market forces.

Market forces have just realized that the melting North Polar ice cap can be a boon to transportation by cutting distances between certain Northern Hemisphere ports by thousands of miles.

So now there is market pressure growing to discourage any efforts to slow down or stop the rate of melting of the North Polar ice cap. Indeed, these same market forces may be looking upon this melting as a positive, desirable situation, one that should be encouraged - or accelerated - whenever possible.

Russia has staked a claim on the Northwest Passage, planting a flag underwater on what it claims is an extension of its continental shelf. Other nations are lining up to press their claims as well. There are profits to be realized, turf to be claimed. What is the extinction of a few dozen species who live exclusively in and around this environment when faced with such market forces? Who will raise a finger to slow this process down, when so many stand to benefit from seeing it through to its end?

1 comment:

whimsicalnbrainpan said...

I hear on the news that there is a lot of oil under there too. Another reason countries are rushing to claim it as their own.