10 Jul 2008: Report

The Arctic Resource Rush is On

As the Arctic's sea ice melts, energy and mining companies are moving into previously inaccessible regions to tap the abundant riches that lie beneath the permafrost and the ocean floor. The potential environmental impacts are troubling.

by ed struzik

In spring, the shores of the Arctic Ocean in Canada’s Northwest Territories are buried deep in snow and ice, seemingly devoid of all life and resources. But not far under the surface, in the relatively shallow permafrost, lies what could be one of the largest sources of energy ever discovered, a slushy mix of water, ice, and natural gas known as methane hydrates. These days, Arctic geologists are scrambling to find methods to tap into this abundant store of energy.

Enlarge image
Methane well
Ed Struzik
A geologist at a site near the Beaufort Sea, where exploratory drilling is taking place for methane hydrates, a potentially enormous source of natural gas.
Gas hydrates — lattice-like ice structures that trap large quantities of methane, the major component of natural gas — are just one of a trove of natural resources in and around the Arctic Ocean. Vast reserves of oil, natural gas, and minerals also lie beneath the frozen sea and land. For centuries, these riches lay out of reach. Indeed, as recently as five years ago, few companies dreamed of investing in the Canadian Arctic because there was no safe and economical way of extracting these resources and shipping them out. In an area nine times as large as California, there was — and is — only one highway, a third of it gravel, which goes to the Arctic Ocean. There is no seaport and no railway.

All that, however, is about to change, as a fast-moving confluence of events is turning the Canadian Arctic — and some northerly regions of Russia and other Arctic nations — into the next Klondike: Just as the Arctic’s summer sea ice is melting at an unprecedented rate, soon opening up the fabled Northwest Passage and other shipping lanes, the booming global economy has created a soaring demand for natural resources, sending prices sky-high. The wealth that has lain untapped beneath the Arctic is now rapidly being opened for exploration.

Soon, not only will ships be steaming across the top of the world, shaving 7,000 kilometers off a Europe-to-Asia voyage that now takes them through the Panama Canal — these vessels will also be able to penetrate previously inaccessible expanses of the Arctic to explore for, extract, and transport natural resources.

These developments will have profound environmental, economic, and global security impacts. Unlike Antarctica, where exploitation of minerals has been indefinitely banned under the Antarctic Treaty System, the Arctic is ripe for exploitation. And the environmental implications of this resource rush are sobering, with fleets of ships and oil tankers moving through a pristine marine environment and legions of workers on land drilling and digging for all manner of mineral wealth.

Enlarge image
Ed Struzik
A Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker on the Arctic Ocean. Neighboring countries are making conflicting territorial claims as the resource scramble intensifies.
“It’s only a matter of time before a single tramp steamer takes a run through the Northwest Passage,” says Michael Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in International Law and Politics at the University of British Columbia. “Our ability to stop that ship or clean up if it runs aground and spills its load is severely lacking. We have the longest coastline in the world in a region that is covered by ice for most of the year, and we don't even have an all-weather icebreaker.”

With so much money at stake, the Arctic has become a hotbed of territorial disputes as the surrounding countries spar for control of resources. In a report issued earlier this year, two of the European Union’s top foreign policy officials warned of the looming international struggle over this energy rich region. The Bush administration, however, is more sanguine, arguing that existing maritime treaties and regular meetings of the five major nations bordering the Arctic Ocean — Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway, and Denmark — will ensure the Arctic’s peaceful and responsible development.

This focus on the Far North comes as a result of the stunningly swift disappearance of ice in the Arctic Ocean. Scientists estimate that summer sea ice has declined by about 50 percent since the 1950s. Last year, summer sea ice extent reached a record low, and thick, multi-year sea ice now covers less than 30 percent of the ocean, down from more than 50 percent in the mid-1980s. Experts who once believed that the Arctic Ocean would not be largely free of summer ice until mid-to-late century now concede that the ice could be gone within a decade.

As a result, in nearly every corner of this icy world, resource companies are investing heavily. Energy and mining firms have announced a $17 billion Arctic exploration agreement with Russia. Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary, Imperial, has formed a consortium to construct a $16 billion pipeline to send Arctic natural gas to southern Canada and the United States. Last summer, Exxon spent nearly $600 million for the rights to explore a tiny lease in the Beaufort Sea, and this year BP paid $1.2 billion to explore in the same region. French mega-uranium miner Areva, which is one of 40 companies looking for uranium in Nunavut, Canada’s new Inuit territory, is considering developing a huge mine. Theirs is just one of 200 development and exploration proposals the once-neglected territory is grappling with these days.

Enlarge image
Sunset Icebreaker
Ed Struzik
An increasingly common sight in the Arctic Ocean: open water. Soon, the ocean will be ice-free in summer, opening the way for development.
On Canada’s Baffin Island — a huge mountain of snow and ice that is home to less than 10,000 people, mainly Inuit — plans are underway to develop a $4.6 billion iron mine and railroad. At Bathurst Inlet in the central Arctic, the Inuit themselves are contemplating construction of a seaport and a new 160 mile-long highway that would open up the Slave Geological Province, widely regarded as the richest untapped mineral deposit in the world. The road also would service three existing diamond mines, with more to come.

Recently, along the shores of the Beaufort Sea in Canada’s western Arctic, I got a sense of both the magnitude of these resources and the forbidding terrain that has so far kept them locked up. With the springtime temperature at -35 F (-37 C), I watched as scientists from the Geological Survey of Canada tapped into methane hydrates buried under the permafrost not far from the frozen shoreline. The gas rose quickly in the well before being capped by technicians.

Although methane hydrates are found deep in marine shelves worldwide, the biggest and most accessible reserves lie in the Arctic’s relatively shallow permafrost zones and on the Arctic Ocean’s continental shelf. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there may be more untapped energy stored in gas hydrates than in all of the conventional oil, gas, and coal reserves in the world.

Cognizant of the wealth at stake, many countries, including the U.S. and those in the European Union, are continuing to deny Canada’s long-standing claim of sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, through which most of these resources would be transported. They insist that the passage is, like the Suez Canal, an international strait.

Competing claims over Arctic territory are escalating. In 2002, Denmark planted a territorial flag on Hans Island, a tiny, treeless chunk of rock off the coast of Ellesmere Island, only to have Canada later send its own mission to reclaim the island. In the Beaufort Sea, the U.S. is in a dispute with Canada over the maritime boundary off the coast of Alaska and the Yukon, where billions of barrels of oil could potentially be found. Last summer, the Russians used a submersible to plant a flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole, claiming 460,000 square miles — an area nearly the size of Germany, France, and Italy combined. Much of that seabed already has been claimed by other Arctic countries.

Sovereignty, however, is not the only challenge that Canada faces in the Arctic. The environmental threats, on land and sea, are huge. Both the road that the Inuit want to build and the uranium mine that Areva is contemplating will be situated in the calving grounds of two huge caribou herds. Ships sailing through the Northwest Passage may also disrupt bowhead, beluga, and narwhal migrations. And today only a small portion of the biologically important areas bordering the Arctic Ocean are protected in parks or reserves.

But the biggest threat may well come from the captain of a single-hulled, crude oil tanker who tries to save time and fuel by taking a shortcut through the Northwest Passage. If that ship runs aground or is crushed by melting ice spilling out of the High Arctic, it could make the two-year, $2 billion clean-up of the Exxon Valdez look like a kitchen spill.

Experts all agree that Canada is not prepared to handle such a disaster. With no Arctic seaport, no roads, virtually no Arctic naval capability, and very few airports from which to stage a recovery and cleanup, the government would be hard-pressed to mount an effective response. Gary Sergy — an Environment Canada expert who helped pioneer oil spill cleanup technology in the Arctic — questions the ability of anyone to effectively deal with an Exxon Valdez-like disaster in the Canadian Arctic, where the huge Beaufort Gyre is constantly spiraling, pushing enormous volumes of ice and water through dozens of channels in the archipelago.

“How would you get a cleanup crew on site with no port or airstrip?” asked Sergy. " We just don't have the infrastructure. It all boils down to a logistical nightmare.”

POSTED ON 10 Jul 2008 IN Climate Energy Oceans Oceans Antarctica and the Arctic Antarctica and the Arctic North America 


It's a terrible shame that we're on the verge of destroying this pristine wilderness.
There seems to be nothing to stop the power of oil companies... Exxon still hasn't been made to account for the Valdez disaster almost 10 years ago.
Posted by Fair Trade on 10 Jul 2008

But perhaps oil exploration can be made safe?
Posted by Jonathan Talbot on 10 Jul 2008

I'm concerned about upsetting this Arctic environment, but what happens to the rest of the world when all this methane is burned as fuel? It seems like a crazy race to accelerate global warming as quickly as possible.
Posted by Dan Hebert on 11 Jul 2008

Where in Hell have you guys been? This has been
on the front burner for resources and the issue of
the positive feed back of Methyl Hydrates for years
re: climate change.

The albedo impact of an arctic oil spill is hardly
new much less it's longer living impact on fisheries
and wildlife.

Has every one been asleep? or is this a
kindergarden talk to those recently born and
Posted by Bindlepete on 13 Jul 2008

Thanks for writing about this important, urgent
issue. I'm from Oceana, the marine conservation
non-profit, and we are working to protect the
Arctic http://www.protectthearctic.org/ from the
resource rush you eloquently discuss here. Please
join us
campaign_KEY=25056 in our efforts to save the

Posted by Emily from Oceana on 16 Jul 2008

Ed Struzik has written an important article. i wonder what he thinks about my idea of polar cities for survivors of global warming in year 2500, if it comes to that? Ed?
Posted by Danny Bloom on 18 Jul 2008

The artic by nature does not belong to anyone. It suprises me that well known countries are so naive to think it belongs to them because they live up in the north. Dubious i say..The earth is for everyone to share.. we all have only one mother and we share her resources it does not belong to anyone period.
Posted by Vanan on 24 Jul 2008

The only way to save the earth is to unify hearts, minds, talents, and resources to do what is needed. We are all of those things, let's do it!
Posted by Marianne on 26 Jan 2009

The environmental threats, on land and sea, are huge. Both the road that the Inuit want to build and the uranium mine that Areva is contemplating will be situated in the calving grounds of two huge caribou herds
Posted by bill on 08 Aug 2009

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Canadian author and photographer Ed Struzik has been writing on the Arctic for the past 27 years. He is the 2007 recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy and was a finalist for this year's Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment. His next book, The Big Thaw, will be published by John Wiley and Sons in March 2009.



Loss of Snowpack and Glaciers
In Rockies Poses Water Threat

From the Columbia River basin in the U.S. to the Prairie Provinces of Canada, scientists and policy makers are confronting a future in which the loss of snow and ice in the Rocky Mountains could imperil water supplies for agriculture, cities and towns, and hydropower production.

Scientists Focus on Polar Waters
As Threat of Acidification Grows

A sophisticated and challenging experiment in Antarctica is the latest effort to study ocean acidification in the polar regions, where frigid waters are expected to feel most acutely the ecological impacts of acidic conditions not seen in millions of years.

Northern Mystery: Why Are
Birds of the Arctic in Decline?

With some species of Arctic birds experiencing steep drops in population and their prey also undergoing marked shifts, scientists are working to understand what role climate change is playing in these unfolding ecological transformations.

Iceland Seeks to Cash In On
Its Abundant Renewable Energy

Still reeling from recent financial crises, Iceland is hoping to use its bountiful sources of geothermal and hydroelectric energy to help boost its economy. Among the country’s more ambitious plans is an undersea cable to carry renewably generated electricity to the U.K.

With Tar Sands Development,
Growing Concern on Water Use

Environmental questions about Canada’s massive tar sands development have long centered on greenhouse gas emissions. Now there are mounting concerns about the huge volumes of water used by the oil industry and the impact on the vast Mackenzie River Basin.


MORE IN Reports

As Himalayan Glaciers Melt,
Two Towns Face the Fallout

by daniel grossman
For two towns in northern India, melting glaciers have had very different impacts — one town has benefited from flowing streams and bountiful harvests; but the other has seen its water supplies dry up and now is being forced to relocate.

Designing Wetlands to Remove
Drugs and Chemical Pollutants

by carina storrs
Drinking water supplies around the world often contain trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and synthetic compounds that may be harmful to human health. One solution being tried in the U.S. and Europe is to construct man-made wetlands that naturally degrade these contaminants.

On the River Nile, a Move to
Avert a Conflict Over Water

by fred pearce
Ethiopia’s plans to build Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam on the Nile have sparked tensions with Egypt, which depends on the river to irrigate its arid land. But after years of tensions, an international agreement to share the Nile’s waters may be in sight.

Perennial Rice: In Search of a
Greener, Hardier Staple Crop

by winifred bird
Scientists have long sought to create a perennial rice that would avoid the damage to the land caused by the necessity of planting annually. Now, Chinese researchers appear close to developing this new breed of rice, an achievement that could have major environmental benefits.

In Kenya’s Mountain Forests,
A New Path to Conservation

by fred pearce
Kenya’s high-elevation forests are the source for most of the water on which the drought-plagued nation depends. Now, after decades of government-abetted abuse of these regions, a new conservation strategy of working with local communities is showing signs of success.

Will New Obstacles Dim
Hawaii’s Solar Power Surge?

by erica gies
Blessed with lots of sun and keen to cut its reliance on imported oil, Hawaii has moved to the forefront of residential solar installations in the U.S. But financial and technical hurdles are slowing the state’s drive to generate 40 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2030.

Atlantic Sturgeon: An Ancient
Fish Struggles Against the Flow

by ted williams
Once abundant in the rivers of eastern North America, the Atlantic sturgeon has suffered a catastrophic crash in its populations. But new protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act are giving reason for hope for one of the world’s oldest fish species.

Agricultural Movement Tackles
Challenges of a Warming World

by lisa palmer
With temperatures rising and extreme weather becoming more frequent, the “climate-smart agriculture” campaign is using a host of measures — from new planting practices to improved water management — to keep farmers ahead of the disruptive impacts of climate change.

Natural Gas Boom Brings Major
Growth for U.S. Chemical Plants

by rachel cernansky
The surge in U.S. production of shale gas is leading to the rapid expansion of chemical and manufacturing plants that use the gas as feedstock. But environmentalists worry these new facilities will bring further harm to industrialized regions already bearing a heavy pollution burden.

How Technology Is Protecting
World’s Richest Marine Reserve

by christopher pala
After years of fitful starts, the Pacific island nation of Kiribati this month banned all commercial fishing inside its huge marine reserve. New satellite transponder technology is now helping ensure that the ban succeeds in keeping out the big fishing fleets.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America


A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video, chronicles a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant. It was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Watch the video.

header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Badru's Story
Badru’s Story, winner of the Yale Environment 360 Video Contest, documents the work of African researchers monitoring wildlife in Uganda's remote Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Watch the video.