National Geographic : 2009 May
• I can hear it burn, I can feel the heat on my face. Whether the future of the Arctic will look like Hammerfest---petroleum plants dotting the coast, an economy running on fossil fuels, and an ice sheet destroyed by them---depends on the world s capacity for irony, and perhaps more on how much oil there really is. In July 2008 the USGS published its "Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal." It estimated that 13 percent of the world s undiscovered oil, or 90 billion barrels, and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas, or 1,670 trillion cubic feet, may be hiding here. But given the unexplored nature of the Arctic, the USGS report is by de nition a desktop study: reliant on analogues and best-guess geologic assessments. It uses little of the recent, propri- etary seismic work collected by oil companies, settling for older, publicly available data. Other reports are less rosy, suggesting that the Arctic holds plentiful gas, but far less oil. And in any case, most of the petroleum appears to be near shore---not subject to continental shelf claims because it is within the 200 nauti- cal miles nations already control. e race for the Arctic may be about oil, but it is about the oil that governments hope is there, not the oil they know is there. e experts best equipped to assess the Arctic s prospects are the oil companies, and a few weeks a er my Snøhvit visit, I witness their tacit vote of con dence: a bidding war for nearshore exploration blocks in the Chukchi Sea. The 488 blocks are auctioned o in the Anchorage, Alaska, public library over the protest of envi- ronmentalists who want a decision on the polar bear s endangered species status before a sell-o of its habitat. ey go for a record $2.66 billion--- 43 times what the government expected. ere is a second misconception about the race for the Arctic: that it is necessarily a race between nations; if America is to win, Russia must lose. But the market for petroleum is globalized, and so is the hunt, and so are the corporations. e companies vying for projects in Alaska--- Shell, StatoilHydro, Chevron, Gazprom, BP, ConocoPhillips---are the same companies vying for projects in Russia and Canada and Norway and Greenland, and their oil is sold on an inter- national market. Where we draw the lines does matter---this will determine who sets the envi- ronmental rules and who gets the royalties--- but it matters far less than the fact that the lines are being drawn at all. Unless the Arctic countries agree, unless there is legal certainty, companies will not purchase mineral leases, because it won t be clear who can sell them. And the Arctic will remain a wilderness. IT IS SATURDAY, FOGGY AND COLD, TWO weeks into the Healy cruise, when we learn we have broken a record. "It s con rmed," ice scientist Clemente-Colón says, looking up from his computer. "It happened a few days ago." e ice cap has shrunk to its smallest extent in modern history. e ship is now at 77 degrees north, having looped south from a high point above 81 degrees, cutting in and out of the ice sheet, and is scanning the Chukchi Plateau. Clemente-Colón has found occasional pieces of multiyear ice big enough to support a tracking buoy---when out deploying his rst one, he cheekily pulled out a tiny Puerto Rican ag---but here most of the ice is patchy, not a solid mass but a series of oes, like asteroid belts. e Healy crashes through. e sun appears, and sailors hit expired survival rations o the helideck with a golf club. ey plan a barbecue. A curious feeling, that of being witnesses to a historic moment, washes over the science crew. In the lab, data stream in unobstructed. We speed up to 10 knots, then 13, then 15. Up on the bridge, my roommate is keeping a tally of seals and polar bears. "Man, last year we were seeing 50 seals a week," Olemaun says. "Now we re lucky if we see one each day." He sees one: "Man, that poor seal." en reconsiders: "Just imagine if I had my harpoon." We get reports that the Northwest Passage--- The ice edge seems to retreat faster than we approach, moving too quickly for the satellites to keep up. We are chasing a ghost.