By Siri Veland and Amanda Lynch, Brown University
Expectations of receding, thawing and melting of the Arctic have prematurely driven investments and geopolitical negotiation over Arctic marine territories and resources. The elusive mathematics of ice dynamics hamper robust forecasting and modeling, and the incongruent scales at which it is defined pose challenges for planning and coordination. Together, these form a high-risk context for Arctic industries and nations that seek to follow the ice edge northward.
Mapping sea ice
Sea ice behaves unlike other major earth surface processes. Neither purely fluid nor solid, ice does not conform to classical Newtonian physics. Fluids like water and air respond to stress continuously and evenly down to the molecular level. Solids respond to stress by deforming elastically or plastically, or by shattering. Sea ice shares characteristics with each. To represent ice in mathematical models, therefore, physicists have developed ‘parametrisations’ by combining different Newtonian behaviors. These include a ‘cavitating’ fluid and a ’viscous–plastic’ or ’viscous–plastic– elastic’ solid. These Newtonian approximations, called ‘rheologies’, seek a compromise between computational efficiency and realistic stress responses. Dynamical rheologies are incorporated in models that also include the thermodynamical response of ice to sunlight and heat. The model developer judges the level of detail to include – the impacts of brine pockets, algal growth, soot, and ice nucleation, for example. Finally, the ice model is connected to models of ocean and atmosphere. Balance is sought between accuracy and spatial detail on the one hand, and available computing power on the other.
Using statistical models avoids these challenges by only considering sea ice area and movement, but comes with its own compromises. Here, modelers measure sea ice area and movement over a period of time using buoys, ship and aircraft observations, and satellite measurement, and predict future sea ice behavior based on its past behavior. Forecasts over two to three weeks based on this approach are usually acceptable; the challenge, though, is that predictions are only as reliable as the available data. Furthermore, this approach cannot anticipate sea ice distributions that have not previously been observed, such as a lower global sea ice extent. This is an important issue given the influence of climate change. As a result, the seasonal and decadal projections that industry needs for planning investments in Arctic activities have high uncertainty.
Governing sea ice
Arctic nations have developed different frameworks for governing seasonally ice-covered waters, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas is in the process of clarifying its framework to assist nations in staking claims to Arctic territory. In United States policy, Arctic industrial activities fall under Federal, State or Borough jurisdictions, depending where the ice edge lies any given time. Drilling and shipping in the United States Arctic therefore follows the freeze and thaw of the ice edge over its c. 1500km range.
In Norway, a political push to protect the ecosystems in the marginal ice zone led to the ice edge becoming a fixed line to regulate industry. As result, the ’15 percent’ ice edge definition of ice modelers has come to define the safe limit for oil and gas exploration. Until 2014, statistical models were based on observational data from 1967 to 1985, but in 2014 the more recently recorded dataset of the National Sea and Ice Data Center in the United States for 1985-2014 was adopted. Because of the polar amplification of climate change, this defined ice edge was further north than earlier decades, opening further oil fields for exploration, and opening pointed debates about the use of science for political interests.
Yet in the hustle of activity to define an unrealisable fixed boundary, the sea ice itself intervenes, along with global oil markets and geopolitical uncertainties, to create a high-risk environment for investments. The Kullug accident in the Chukchi Sea points to overconfidence, Barents Sea drilling has so far disappointed, and Shell has pulled out of the Arctic.
Ice edge narratives
Discourse on the ’melting’, ’receding’, and ’thawing’ Arctic has dominated climate change narratives over the past decades. ’Vulnerable’ Arctic Indigenous nations feature as poster children of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fund adaptation measures. With recent record-low sea ice extents, these perceptions have led to an assumption that the Arctic will soon be open enough to host petroleum installations and to compete with the Suez and Panama Canals as a sea route. National governance of Arctic sea ice sits at the intersection of highly dynamic and insufficiently understood earth system processes, old and new cultural values, and numerous valuable industrial activities. In this complexity, a cognitive simplification of processes may have overestimated the potential of this region as a new industrial powerhouse.
Our paper in Area approaches these insights by proposing narrative as a framework for analyzing multiple and complex representations of earth processes. The paper highlights the many discourses and scales across which the ice edge is defined and governed, and the challenge of reaching convergence in policy. We urge that industries and governments that would invest in petroleum, shipping, or other activities near the seasonal ice edge avoid relying on simplified narratives of receding Arctic ice. Risk is lowered if openings exist for deliberative processes that incorporate a variety of story-lines about what the Arctic is, and what activities are permissible.
About the authors: Siri Veland is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES). Amanda Lynch is Director of IBES and Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences.
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