The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average, making climate change’s polar effects more intense than anywhere else in the world. Some scientific projections show that the North Pole will have completely ice free summers by 2050. While a jarring image to imagine, climate change is transformative as its consequences reach much further than receding sea ice. The Arctic Institute’s Beyond the Melt project explores the hidden side of Arctic climate change. Delving into issues as far ranging as persistent organic pollutants, methane energy sources, and warm-weather diseases, our research team uncovers, analyses, and shares the unexpected challenges and opportunities of a rapidly changing Arctic. Check out our infographic today and analysis on Thursday as the first installment of Beyond the Melt.
As the ice continues to melt at the top of the world, climate change is altering more than global weather patterns. The opening up of Arctic waters, as summer sea ice continues a thirty-year retreat, holds the opportunity to cut a third off distances between North-West Europe and the Far East. With the UN Panel on climate change predicting nearly ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean before 2050, there is an expectation that the patterns of world trade are poised to go polar. But with more commercial use of circumpolar shipping lanes comes the increased risk of fuel pollution and spillage into the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem.
In February 2016, the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Marine Environment Working Group met to discuss the regulation and potential ban of heavy fuel oil. The decision to include discussions on heavy fuel oil came after an open letter was published on the topic by 15 international NGOs including WWF, NDRC, and Friends of the Earth. In their letter addressed to Ambassador David Balton, US State Department diplomat and current chair of the Senior Arctic Officials group, NGO leaders voiced their concern that heavy fuel oil would be “impractical, if not impossible” to clean up in the event of a spill.
The debate over heavy fuel oil use in the Arctic is not new. Since the 1960s, heavy fuel oil has dominated the international shipping industry due to its low costs. But low costs do not mirror its impact on the environment and human health.
In the Arctic Council’s 2009 marine shipping assessment, researchers identified a spill of heavy fuel oil as the top threat posed by shipping to the Arctic environment. The two main risks posed by heavy fuel oil are spills and black carbon. Rather than evaporating like other petroleum products, heavy fuel oil has a propensity to combine with seawater and expand in volume, sticking to anything it comes into contact with. A recent spill in Russia, for example, led to the death of hundreds of seabirds. During normal use, ships fueled by heavy oils produce black carbon, a fine soot that falls on snow and ice which, in turn, absorbs more UV sun rays and quickens the melting process.
Beyond environmental and climate hazards, black carbon also has a direct health effect on residents of the north. The sulfur content of heavy fuels can be up to 35,000 parts per million, contributing heavily to acid rain and respiratory diseases. In port and near-route communities, emissions of particulate matter, directly tied to the sulfur content, lead to further health issues. In 2012, one estimate attributed 87,000 premature deaths worldwide to the emissions of maritime shipping.
Our infographic, here, provides you with a go-to source for understanding how black carbon affects the Arctic’s communities, climate, and ecosystems.