The Arctic isn’t a major concern to most Australians. I hope overseas readers won’t judge us too harshly for that: the Arctic is a long way away and we have plenty causes of concern closer to home:
|NSW bushfires as seen from space, last Friday. (source)
Other than sporadic pieces -- like this one from ABC -- Australian media devoted little attention to recent events in northern latitudes. A partial exception was SBS, the public broadcaster catering for ethnic communities. They did cover last northern summer’s European heatwave and its subsequent extension to the Arctic.
Nevertheless, last June, images like that –- sleds in Greenland “sailing” through a shallow inland sea where an ice field was expected -– did make the rounds in local media.
That’s more than one can say about the giant Siberian wildfires. I could find no coverage of that in Australian media. When they started in July, according to NASA, those fires covered 23,958 km², but the total area devastated could have been one order of magnitude larger; its smoke made its way across the Pacific, to reach the US and Canada towards the end of that month.
ABC released some more in-depth coverage recently. Late last month its US bureau chief, Zoe Daniel, presented “At the Edge of the Earth” (see also).
Daniel travelled to Kaktovik, Alaska, a Native American village on the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Although the program touched on how the proposed exploitation of natural gas reserves threatens wildlife, its main focus was on the threat to local lifestyle, to the distress of some residents but with the surprising support of others. The romanticised view of traditional cultures as custodians of the environment seems hopelessly simplistic when contrasted with some characters Daniel encountered.
Valuable as that insight is, Daniel’s report missed a fundamental point, as readers will see.
Over a week ago the ABC’s “Planet America”, with its weekly news coverage of American politics, also gave the Arctic some thought. That program’s unorthodox and innovative approach to news, in my opinion very appropriate, can best be explained -- I reckon -- by considering the qualifications of its two presenters: John Barron is the conventional expert one has grown accustomed to find in that kind of journalism; Chas Licciardello, on the other hand, is a comedian.
They mentioned the shorter sea lanes a summer ice-free Arctic Ocean would afford to global trade, how Russians are deploying a fleet of icebreakers, and that the Arctic Ocean is home to 30% of the world reserves of natural gas.
All that interesting and humorously presented, to be sure, but like Daniel’s own report, still missing a vital point.
It’s ironic that Scott Snowden’s early reporting (“Greenland’s Massive Ice Melt Wasn't Supposed To Happen Until 2070”, Aug. 2019), without fully grasping at the deeper and potentially fatal scientific implications of that melting, came closer to understand them. I find it ironic because Snowden writes for Forbes, the well-known American business magazine.
In late October, the ABC’s Ben Deacon came closer still to those implications, but focused on sea levels. Deacon writes that “Greenland this September weighed almost a third of a trillion tonnes less than it did the previous month”. The difference was due to ice melting because of the unusually high temperatures. Deacon was quoting Dr Paul Tregoning, from the Australian National University, researcher responsible for that finding.
As Barron and Licciardello noted, there are huge reservoirs of natural gas in the Arctic. Natural gas, however, is not a single substance, but a mix of gases and its main component by far is methane (CH4). Methane, over a 100 year horizon, is estimated to be 27 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, meaning that one kilogram of CH4 traps as much heath as 27 kg of CO2.
On Earth, the ultimate source of methane is the continuous and gradual anaerobic decomposition of organic matter. Those reservoirs exist because some mechanism stops gas from leaking into the atmosphere.
In conventional situations, natural gas reservoirs -- associated with oil reservoirs -- are in essence a bubble trapped by a stable and impermeable layer of material (rock and limestone in the figure below).
The mechanism, in those situations, is that layer.
Incidentally, as joint production of oil and gas is generally economically unviable, when oil extraction is the main activity, unwanted releases of gas occur. Those gas flares are just burnt. (Imagine now you are a moth, flying at night). The satellite image below, off the coast of Nigeria, illustrates (a global picture is given here).
So, oil not only produces CO2 directly -- when the refined oil products are burnt -- but also indirectly, during extraction. Environmentally damaging as that is, the alternative is possibly worse: the direct release of methane into the atmosphere. (Sometimes, however, methane is released intentionally.)
Natural gas is found in other geological formations, though. Now the mechanism trapping the gas underground is some kind of porous structure, filled with gas. Its extraction involves more elaborate and costlier techniques (like fracking). With increasing demand, its exploration becomes economically viable. Because of that it was considered unconventional.
Methane hidrates is another mechanism trapping methane in the Arctic: frozen water lattices containing tiny molecular bubbles of methane, that is kept from migrating to the atmosphere by an upper permafrost layer.
And this is what those reports neglected to note: it’s not only Greenland and Iceland ice that is melting. It’s Siberian, Canadian, and Alaskan permafrost. From dry land and undersea.
I also send my thoughts and prayers.
Scratch that. Make it “all the Ministers in the Morrison Ministry, Morrison included”.