Once, in a leading maritime daily news feed, I saw a sentence that went something like this: “The upside of the apocalypse is that ships will be able to sail straight across the North Pole and reduce sailing time by 20%.” I was reminded of this when reading the weekend papers and my eye fell upon a $500bn plan to refreeze polar ice caps.
I’ve wondered often what version of apocalypse the author had in mind when predicting an ‘upside’. The first definition Google offers me is: ‘the complete, final destruction of the world’ - not much room for shipping in that scenario.
Temperatures in the Arctic are currently about 20C above what would be expected for the time of year, which scientists writing in ‘The Arctic Resilience Report’ describe as “off the charts”.
Increasingly rapid melting of the ice cap risks triggering “tipping points” that, they claim, could have catastrophic consequences around the globe. The tipping points include: growth in vegetation on tundra, which replaces reflective snow and ice with darker vegetation, thus absorbing more heat; higher releases of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from the tundra as it warms; shifts in snow distribution that warm the ocean, resulting in altered climate patterns as far away as Asia; and the collapse of some key Arctic fisheries, with knock-on effects on ocean ecosystems around the globe. All this has prompted physicist Steven Desch to devise a novel solution. With colleagues from Arizona State University his idea is to replenish shrinking sea ice by building 10 million wind-powered pumps over the Arctic ice cap. In winter, these would be used to pump water to the surface of the ice where it would freeze, thickening the cap.
It’s all a bit extreme. The sci-fi imaginings of geo-engineering make us feel that there’s a silver bullet solution. Unless someone’s got $500bn they are prepared to gamble on the efficacy of 10million wind pumps we’re probably going to need to do something a little more practical and a little more immediate.
The international shipping community has already banned HFO in the Antarctic. Perhaps now is the time to provide the Arctic with similar protection. Some of us are old enough to recall the PR nightmares of maritime oil spills polluting much loved coastal regions back in the day. It’s really difficult to clean up in the event of a spill, even in relatively benign environments, without trying to imagine how it could work in remote and hostile Polar regions. HFO produces higher levels of air and climate pollutants than other marine fuels, it produces more ‘black carbon’ which further darkens the ice to accelerate warming and melting. Given the severe risks that heavy fuel oil poses to vulnerable polar ecosystems to help both the shipping community and our global climate, upon which we are all utterly dependent, navigating a safe passage through the all alarmist predictions by banning HFO in the Arctic as a matter of urgency would be a shrewd way ahead.