The impact of climate change

One such risk is that an iceberg could move at unstoppable speed towards an oil rig or any other offshore installation. As the Arctic's waters get warmer, icebergs are melting and splintering into smaller, floating segments that could collide with rigs and ships and cause immense damage. And any drilling operations that take place too close to the Arctic ice pack could also suffer the same brutal fate as the ships of some of the region's early explorers. Constantly shifting, but in a direction that is difficult to predict, these often vast ice sheets still pose real challenges to anyone who ventures into the region, and could easily damage or even crush rigs and platforms.

This means that many of the offshore rigs that international oil companies hope to construct in Arctic waters are at least as vulnerable to the challenges of the local climate as tankers like the Exxon Valdez. In a worst-case scenario, any collision could damage the drilling equipment and cause a spillage that would have a disastrous impact on the environment, quite apart from having serious economic repercussions. This nearly happened at the end of 2006, when violent storms sank a large Swedish cargo ship in the North Sea and broke an oil rig away from its tow, setting it adrift off the coast of Norway.22 As one North Sea oil executive told a British researcher, 'we've had our third "once-in-a-hundred-years" storm so far this year'.23

A stark reminder of just how big this ice, and the threat it poses, can be came in the summer of 2007 when a vast section of ice, measuring 11 miles in length and 3 across, broke free of Ellesmere Island and floated hundreds of miles downstream. Scientists were concerned that this vast segment, which they called Ayles Ice Island, was heading straight for oil and gas installations in the Beaufort Sea and were relieved when, at the end of August, it finally became stuck among the rocks, barrier and reefs of the Queen Elizabeth Islands and remained there.

Environmentalists fear that Russia's Shtokman field, which is due to be developed by a consortium of international energy companies, is already at particular risk.24 Lying 300 miles from the mainland and within the Arctic Circle, it is quite possible that any rigs could be damaged by icebergs, weighing up to 1 million tons and drifting at speeds of up to 12 feet every minute, and even by floating ice that can quite easily move several times faster.

The energy industry is trying to minimize these risks in a variety of ways, not least by using drill ships with double hulls and rigs made out of specially reinforced steel that is less brittle than the variety ordinarily used for such underwater operations. Whereas steel usually breaks at temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, these newly designed rigs would be much more resilient. 'They're made horrendously strong', as Alan Spackman, director of Offshore Technical and Regulatory Affairs for the International Association for Drilling Contractors, has said. 'The common rigs working in the Gulf of Mexico wouldn't survive.'25

Climate change is also presenting various other risks to both off and onshore infrastructure. In the Arctic, and elsewhere, some scientists say that a reduction in sea ice is creating larger stretches of open water, which increases the size and speed of the ocean's waves. This not only poses a risk to offshore rigs, but is also accelerating the erosion of coastal areas where much of the infrastructure that is used to exploit oil and natural gas would be located.26 What makes things even worse is that storms are already becoming increasingly violent while sea levels are starting to rise, posing a particular risk to the stability of these offshore installations. 'There will be a rise in the frequency and the strength of storms at sea', as Joan Eamer, a manager at the UN's Global Resource Information Database, has pointed out.27 The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment also emphasizes that 'in some regions', such as the Labrador, Norwegian, Bering and Beaufort Seas, 'an increase in storm activity is likely' and that 'climate change is projected to result in more frequent and intense storms accompanied by stronger winds'.28

One place that is already at risk from just this sort of environmental threat is a Russian oil storage facility that has been built on a barrier island at Varandey. Although much of this coastline is relatively unthreatened by erosion, the site is proving highly vulnerable to the damage inflicted by storms and sudden surges of ocean waves, and scientists feel that the reduction in sea ice and rising sea levels will aggravate this problem. At Tuktoyaktuk, which is the major port in the western Canadian Arctic and the only permanent settlement on the shores of the Beaufort Sea, the coastline is already being badly eroded by stronger waves, forcing a good many people to abandon their homes. Successive shoreline protection structures have been rapidly destroyed by storms and strong waves, and further efforts to reinforce the coastline will become increasingly expensive but probably prove just as futile, eventually making the site completely uninhabitable.

Minimizing the impact of these changes will require considerable ingenuity on the part of architects and engineers. In the case of the oil industry in particular, offshore platforms will have to be specially redesigned to withstand the increasingly forceful impact of ocean waves, while both governments and industry will need highly effective contingency plans to keep the region linked to the outside world. As the authors of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment write:

Increasing storm frequencies are very likely to increase closure periods of wind-exposed roads, highways, railroads, and airports, and are likely to affect industries and other human activities dependent on transportation.

For example, an increase in the frequency of closed roads is very likely to have an impact on the fishing industry in Norway where immediate transport of fresh fish to the European market is essential2

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