Entries in Arctic (3)


Battle for the Arctic: Oil Drilling Still Faces Environmental Concerns

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- The bottom of the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska's north shore, is one of the most hotly contested places under the sea.

It is here that Shell Oil, Co., is looking for oil and Greenpeace is trying to stop them.

The oil giant has spent years and billions of dollars jockeying to be first to strike and the payoff stands to be enormous. The ocean floor inside the Arctic Circle may hold a quarter of the Earth's undiscovered oil, enough to drastically reduce the United States' dependency on foreign supplies.

Shell has promised to drill safely and responsibly, developing new technologies to reduce drilling noise, and dedicating a fleet of vessels ready to respond to a spill in 60 minutes, 24 hours a day.

But that's not how Greenpeace sees it. The environmental activists made famous for chaining themselves to things are now trying a different approach: going after Shell with science. That's where Greenpeace activist and marine biologist John Hocevar and the organization's Arctic floating research hub, a former Russian Army fireship Greenpeace dubbed the Esperanza, came in.

Life on board is what you might expect: tofu for lunch, a very serious recycling program, and an eclectic crew from all over the world who dedicate their lives to the cause.

Nightline was given the rare opportunity to go on a research dive with Hocevar in a two-person submarine deep below the Chuckchi Sea, one of the most remote oceans on Earth. It is a dive no one outside of the military had attempted before.

About 200 feet down, the world outside of the submarine is murky, so thick with plankton and sea worms, it's difficult to see. Slowly, Arctic life revealed itself and a sea bed covered in thousands of star fish, the occasional crab and other unworldly creatures appeared.

"We are right in the midst of Shell's proposed drill sites," Hocevar said.

While on the dive, Hocevar discovered a tiny coral, just one of the many examples environmentalists say offer insights into what fragile, new life might be at stake.

"We're rushing ahead to allow drilling in the Arctic and we don't even know what's down here," Hocevar said.

While Greenpeace continues its fight, Shell has found other support in some unlikely corners, such as Bob Reiss, an environmental journalist and the author of the The Eskimo and the Oil Man, who supports drilling in the Arctic.

"Are Americans going to buy the same amount of oil whether or not it comes from Russia or if it comes from Alaska? Yeah. So what's the downside of not taking out this oil?" he said.

Reiss said that Shell has more than cooperated to find solutions to environmental concerns.

"Shell bent over backwards over the last five years to compromise here," he said. "Their safety system has been called the gold standard by the Deepwater Horizon Commission. So I think if a company does bend over backwards, they ought to be rewarded for it."

That reward came this summer from the Obama administration, which gave Shell the green light to drill 1,400 feet below the surface of the Chuckchi Sea.

Shell declined Nightline's request for an interview, but said in a statement: "The debate on whether to evaluate Arctic energy resources is over. We are now focused on safe execution."

But Greenpeace refuses to back down, and the threat of a spill in the Arctic's pristine setting fuels their mission to stop oil drilling.

"In this remote, unforgiving environment, we all know it would be impossible to clean up an oil spill," said Greenpeace activist Jackie Dargon. "We can't risk it."

Reiss admitted than an oil spill in this part of the world, or in any part, could be catastrophic.

"The question is legislating perfection," he said. "Do you stop any kind of development because a spill could occur or do you have systems and back-up systems and other back-up systems to deal with a spill, which Shell does, and then allow it to proceed."

Local Eskimo communities whose culture and livelihood depend on a thriving Arctic are torn because for them, this debate is about survival. Steve Omittuk, the mayor of Point Hope, Alaska, located near the most northern part of the state, said the town has concerns for the animals and the ecosystem.

"If [the animals] are gone, our way of life is gone, the people who have been here for thousands of years is gone," Omittuk said. "The Arctic is so delicate, the system so sensitive."

But at the same time, Omittuk acknowledged that the town also needs jobs and drilling would provide them.

"It's hard for the people," he said. "They need money, they need income, they need our economy to come up, but we need our way of life also. It's a tough battle to choose."

Shell has already begun preliminary drilling and next year looks set to be full steam ahead.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Gray Whales, Protected Off Mexico, May Face New Threat in Arctic

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Gray whales are starting to make a strong comeback in the Pacific thanks, in part, to Mexico’s aggressive eco-tourism program, where whale-watching is regulated, but a new threat is emerging some 10,000 miles away.

Hunters once pushed these gentle giants to the brink of extinction -- at one point, there were only 500 gray whales left. Now there are an estimated 20,000 of them and they are the first marine mammal to be removed from the endangered species list. In Baja, Mexico, researchers monitor the whales’ movements and growth, and even use crossbows to gather small samples of flesh to test how healthy they are.

But while the gray whales may be protected in the Baja lagoons where they mate and raise their young, environmentalists are concerned about a looming danger to the animals’ feeding grounds in the Arctic, where Shell Oil is scheduled to begin exploratory drilling this summer.

“Shell’s oil and gas leases exactly overlap with the critical feeding area of the gray whale,” World Wildlife Fund spokeswoman Leigh Henry said.

The process of looking for oil means sending sonic booms, or shockwaves, into the sea floor, and environmentalists worry the noise might affect the whales’ survival. These animals make deep sounds to do almost everything -- navigate, find food, find mates -- and the deafening booms could make the whales become disoriented and mothers could even be separated from their calves, Henry said.

Shell declined Nightline’s request for an interview, but said in a statement that their data shows whales are “generally undisturbed by industry activity.” The company pointed to another whale species, the bowhead, whose population has grown despite drilling in their feeding grounds.

“We would not consider working in the Alaska offshore if we were not confident in our ability to do so without negatively impacting...marine mammals,” Shell said in the statement.

But it’s not just the noise Henry is worried about. She said Shell is not prepared if a massive oil spill were to happen, and pointed to the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

“It’s a little unreasonable to think that we’re going to be prepared to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic,” she said. “Obviously, Shell has insurmountable resources to do this work and we would like them to step up and take responsibility and ensure that any operations they undertake in the Arctic have minimal impact on the whales.”

Shell argues that it has taken responsibility, engineering a containment system like the one that was ultimately successful in stopping the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The company added that it has also “assembled an...oil spill response fleet that is second to none in the world.”

Environmentalists remain skeptical, and they hope to generate enough public support to delay or even halt the drilling, but the Obama administration has already approved it.

“What are we going to do after we drill in the Arctic?” Henry said. “It’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem and we need to be looking at alternative fuel sources.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Arctic Sea Ice: Why Pay Attention, Record or No Record?

Michael Blann/Thinkstock(BREMEN, Germany) -- Did Arctic sea ice melt to a record-low level this summer? Researchers at the University of Bremen in Germany believe that it did, dipping 27,000 square kilometers below the previous record low set in 2007.

However, U.S. scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., are not ready to declare that the extent of Arctic sea ice has dropped below the record level.  At this point, the expectation is that 2011 will rank second -- right behind 2007 -- for record Arctic sea ice melt. Scientists at the International Arctic Research Center in cooperation with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency concur. Final numbers will come in a few days.

Regardless of whether or not 2011 breaks a record, here’s the important point: Scientists say human-driven climate change continues to help push Arctic sea ice on a disturbing three-decade downward slide.

“Is Arctic ice in a death spiral? Maybe not yet, but it’s in big trouble,” NSIDC director Mark Serreze tells ABC News.

Serreze points out that the five lowest amounts of Arctic sea ice on record (since 1979) have all been recorded in the last five years. And it’s not just the amount of ice, but the quality. It’s also getting thinner, making it more sensitive to increases in temperature.

So why should we care about Arctic sea ice?

-- SEA LEVEL: Scientists tell ABC that Arctic sea ice acts as a giant air conditioner at the top of the planet, helping regulate the planet’s overall temperature. But as the white sea ice (which reflects a portion of the sun’s energy) melts, the darker water underneath absorbs energy, warming the water and creating a “feedback” that in turn, helps melt additional ice in a vicious cycle. Because it is already floating, this does not raise sea level much as it melts.

But in Greenland, it’s a different story. When ice calves off of Greenland’s glaciers, sea level rises. One recent study reported that Greenland glaciers lost 592 square miles of ice between 2000 and 2010. If Greenland melted entirely, global sea levels would rise about 20 feet.

-- WEATHER: Scientists say ice loss may help alter weather patterns across the planet. The jet stream, for example, could shift further north. That could bring more frequent and intense droughts to the U.S. A jet stream change might also affect the path of storms and hurricanes. And more open water and heat could help supercharge those storms.

Many scientists believe human-emitted greenhouse gases warming the planet are already loading the dice toward a future with more weather extremes.

-- WILDLIFE: Melting sea ice also bad news for a number of animals and organisms, including polar bears, who use the ice to hunt for food.

-- OIL AND GAS EXPLORATION: Melting ice literally removes a major barrier to oil and gas exploration in a remote and harsh environment. For years, oil companies and nations have been fighting turf wars over who gets which part of the (potentially very lucrative) sea floor. Exxon, for example, just entered into a new Arctic exploration deal with the Russian government that could be worth tens of billions of dollars.

So what’s causing the ice to melt?

It has been well-established through several peer-reviewed scientific papers that Arctic sea ice loss cannot be explained by natural causes alone. One recent study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research found that roughly half of the Arctic sea ice decline from 1975 to 2005 can be blamed on increasing amounts of greenhouse gases.

Those same researchers were surprised by computer models that predict a 10-year period where the ice melt could pause, and the amount even increase, thanks to natural weather variability that is hard to predict.

The latest thinking among scientists has summer sea ice vanishing from the Arctic well before the end of the century, perhaps within the next 50 years. Given that greenhouse gases are only expected to increase between now and then, scientists do not see a reversal of sea ice declines in the near future.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio