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'Flow Bergs' Become One of a Number of Hazards as Polar Ice Melts

By Christina Reed, E&E Europe correspondent
5/1/2014 10:59:34 AM

Summer sea ice in the Arctic is not only an at-risk natural resource; it's a risky natural hazard that threatens oil companies and others that want to take advantage of its early breakup.

The immediate threat sea ice poses is in the form of collisions with ships and structures. But as it disappears, the ice also presents near- and long-term threats to the environment.

"Sea ice hazards, which imply damage or threats, are closely intertwined with ice usage," sea ice geophysicist Hajo Eicken of the University of Alaska said at the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) in Vienna this week. "Despite reductions in ice extent over the summer time, a change in the ice movement and its deformation -- we are still seeing substantial production of hazardous ice."

Some of the shipping hazards accelerated by melting. Photo courtesy of the Coast Guard.

Oil and gas exploration is already taking place along the northern Russian coast inside the Arctic Circle. The Russian tanker Mikhail Ulyanov left the Prirazlomnaya oil rig April 18 with the country's first shipment of Arctic oil, the Voice of Russia reported. Traveling through the Barents Sea and down the Norwegian coast, the tanker is scheduled to deliver the oil to Europe via the port in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

On Monday, Greenpeace announced it had launched its Rainbow Warrior III vessel to escort the tanker into the harbor and send a message "that this oil is very dangerous," campaigner Willem Wiskerke told Agence France-Presse.

This morning, the group announced that its ship had been boarded by Dutch security agents in the port of Rotterdam, after they broke down the door of its communications room and towed the ship to shore after it intercepted a Russian tanker carrying Arctic oil to Europe.

A total of 44 activists, including crew members on board the Rainbow Warrior and activists in inflatables, have been detained after they attempted to block the tanker from docking on the quayside. Greenpeace Capt. Peter Willcox was among them.

But just how dangerous is such a shipment?

The Mikhail Ulyanov is a super-strength icebreaking tanker with the capability to break ice up to 1.5 meters thick without the need of an icebreaker escort, according to Ship-Technology.com, a subset of Kable, a U.K.-based market analysis firm.

Beware of departing 'old ice'

But thick, old ice -- the same ice that stabilizes Arctic ice cover, protects coastal sea ice from waves and has a habitat value to different organisms -- can grow 30 to 40 meters thick, Eicken said. When broken into chunks that large, this type of ice gets designated as "flow bergs" rather than icebergs. "And these types of flow bergs are upstream of some major oil and gas exploration areas," he added.

He and his team from Fairbanks, Alaska, are evaluating sea ice as a natural hazard, both by its presence and its absence. In the short term, to help industry forge a safer path through the Arctic, his team is calling for better tracking of ice as it breaks up during the summer and freezes again in the fall.

In the last 30 years since satellite observations began, the breakup of the summer ice has happened more often earlier in the season. In the last 10 years, the "advance in the breakup season is on the order of a month," reported oceanographer Jean-Claude Gascard of the French National Center for Scientific Research at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris.

"But before melting ice, you need to form ice," Gascard said at the EGU conference. The number of days available for ice to freeze has diminished by about 2,000 days, he said. "Winters in the Arctic are milder and producing less ice, a good 1 meter of ice less than before."

The extended days of open water may be a boon for shipping, but the loss of ice leaves the coastlines exposed to waves, creating a near-term erosion crisis for animals and humans living along the coast, Eicken said.

A warmer, ice-free Arctic in the future could also trigger the melting of frozen methane hydrates along the upper continental margins, oceanographers warn. The clues of one catastrophic release of methane gas into the atmosphere from the seafloor is recorded in the shells of tiny Arctic marine organisms dating back 13,000 years, said Giuliana Panieri of the Arctic University of Norway.

In the long term, Eicken said, slow-onset ice hazards "can take years or decades to unfold, or in the case of methane emissions for example, centuries."

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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