The United States and many other nations are dramatically stepping up efforts to chart the sea floor beneath the ice surrounding the North Pole. Why? As the earth warms, the thinning of the ice may allow the extraction of tremendous energy sources:
North of Alaska, the 23 scientists of the Healy are gathering the data legally required to extend national territories across vast reaches of the mineral-rich seafloor usually blocked by Arctic ice. Fathom by fathom, multibeam sonar sensors mounted on the Healy's hull chart a submerged plateau called the Chukchi Cap, in a region that may contain 25% of the world's reserves of oil and natural gas.
North of Alaska, researchers aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy are gathering the data legally required to extend national territories across vast reaches of the mineral-rich seafloor usually blocked by Arctic ice.
In an era of climate change, these frozen assets are up for grabs, as melting ice allows detailed mapping and, one day perhaps, drilling.
Rising temperatures thinned the ice pack to a record low this month. If current trends continue, the Arctic could become ice-free in summer months by 2040, polar researchers say.
Those who believe that human activity plays a significant role in global warming will no doubt see a painful irony. They will argue that the emission of greenhouse gases is allowing us to access new sources, exacerbating our problems.
But energy is life. Without access to fuel in sufficient quantities, our lifestyle will change dramatically -- for the worse. And that's not just true of the United States, of course. We depend on hydrocarbon fuels for transport, electricity, and heat. But the rest of the world does as well. And while Americans are wealthy enough to weather the hit from higher energy prices relatively well, that's far less true of the vast majority of the world. And if electricity is not generated, or cars do not move, people die.
That's why the discovery of new energy sources that can be extracted is good news. Whether and how we use it is a separate question. And to the extent that the burning of fossil fuels creates negative externalities -- such as a changing climate -- that policy question must be addressed as well.