Part 1: Artificial Arctic Feedback Loops: How Might Market Forces and Geopolitics Influence an Evolving North?

The Paris Climate agreement, which entered into force in November 2016, brought together nearly 200 countries to address the mitigation of extreme climate change. The parties agreed that each country would submit a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), with an overall goal of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to a level sufficient for maintaining a global temperature average within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Achieving this goal, it is believed, will prevent the most extreme effects of climate change from devastating communities around the world. However, north of the arctic circle, climate change has already yielded a regional temperature increase of greater than 3 degrees Celsius above temperature records from the early 1900’s, despite the world as a whole warming by less than a degree over that same time period. Ice in the region is responding to the warmer temperatures as one would expect ice to do: in 1985 45% of arctic sea ice was thicker and more resilient multi-year ice. In 2016, multi-year ice only accounted for 22% of regional sea-ice cover. This concentration of the earth’s warming, scientists warn, risks catalyzing a number of arctic geophysical processes which, in turn, could push the planet towards a cycle of self-propelled climate feedback loops.  For an example, as northern permafrost begins to thaw, bacteria in the soil immediately begin to decompose organic material that has remained frozen for thousands of years, releasing methane and other greenhouse gases. These gases will further increase global carbon emissions and inevitably worsen global warming trends, thus leading to increased melting of the permafrost. To a lesser extent, methane trapped in molecular ice cages called methane hydrate can break down if the temperature or pressure at which they formed is disturbed. Another arctic feedback loop is related to the region’s heat absorption potential. As surface ice melts, it reduces the albedo of the arctic surface, which in turn increases the surfaces potential to absorb solar radiation, increasing the local temperature and leading to further melting. Combined, these natural and physical processes, if activated, could have dramatic effects on the planet’s temperature on par, or even exceeding, the effects of anthropogenic greenhouse emissions.

Natural feedback loops, though difficult to predict accurately and even more difficult to prevent, are at least at the forefront of climate discussions such as the Paris agreement.  However, it is possible that there also exists a second set of arctic feedback loops, not determined by natural and physical processes of the planet, but rather by international relations, global market forces, and human resource demand. These feedback loops, although artificial, could profoundly influence the region, and global geopolitics.

A news story from a few weeks ago suggests that we are closer than ever to kick-starting some of these artificial feedback loops. In August, a Russian LNG tanker became the first modern vessel to travel through the northern passage from Norway to South Korea in 19 days, without an icebreaker.  This route cut approximately 30% of the time and 40% of the cost of taking the traditional route through the Mediterranean, Suez Canal, and Indian Ocean. The Russian Ministry of Transport has predicted that by 2020, shipping along this corridor of the arctic will increase tenfold, leading to lower shipping costs, shorter transport times, and reduced reliance on fragile shipping chokepoints such as the Strait of Malacca. Currently, this route is available for up to four months of the year, but the use of icebreakers can extend this term. With continued arctic warming, the route may soon be available for more than half the year.

Artificially breaking shipping paths through the ice is likely to have localized warming effects from the reduced albedo of exposed arctic ocean, but the vastness of arctic ice cover means that the global climate impact of arctic shipping is, on its own, limited. However, increased shipping in the region will improve conditions for arctic resource extraction operations. The second part of this blog will discuss another, far more potent, artificial arctic feedback loop resulting from oil and gas extraction. 

Read Part 2

Oscar Serpell

Associate Director of Academic Programming
Oscar Serpell oversees student engagement activities, new student programming, and alumni connections. He also participates in several key research projects at the center and also writes blog posts and policy digests on timely energy policy topics.