As Geographical has reported in the past, the Arctic Ocean is a resource-rich region where the regional geopolitics has been activated by the hitherto protective sea-ice cover receding. With an estimated 23 per cent of the world’s untapped oil (90 billion barrels), natural gas (1,670 trillion cubic feet), and liquefied gas resources (44 billion barrels), according to the US Geological Survey (UGS 2008), and potentially rich fishing grounds and sea-floor mineral deposits, the region’s potential contribution to the global economy is great.
The new Arctic context, partly created by climate change, is transforming the focus of exploration. For Pen Hadow, the only person to have trekked solo from Canada to the North Pole, and more relevantly, the leader of the pioneering £7.5million international research programme, Catlin Arctic Survey (2007–2012), it’s a change that must at least involve advances in the natural sciences in parallel, if not ahead of, exploration for resources. Ahead of a panel discussion this evening on how to better understand how Arctic exploration has changed over the years, Hadow here outlines his thoughts on how that change is and should be happening:
Exploration is multiplying in its forms in the Arctic Ocean. From both an extractive and a geopolitical point of view, much exploration is now focussed on both the hunt for hydrocarbon deposits and also the geological and geomorphological mapping of the continental shelves to support territorial rights claims made by littoral nation states through the United Nations. Billions of dollars have already been invested in these forms of exploration. A different form of exploration and discovery takes place when hydrocarbon extractive industries begin pre-extraction drilling. They have to provide environmental baseline measurements. They have to record the immediate ecosystem around the drilling site and assess its value and vulnerability. Once there has been a baseline survey, third parties can monitor the impact of any subsequent drilling.
Commercial fishing, involving pelagic trawling, and further down the line, seabed trawling I suspect, is already happening in the Arctic Ocean, although on a relatively low scale as the sea ice is still too problematic in the western Arctic Ocean, so it’s been mainly off the Russian coast involving 770,000 metric tonnes from 1950–2006 (UN Food & Fisheries Organisation). There is also increased mapping of the inshore coastal areas along the Northern Sea Route off northern Russian to improve the charts and infrastructural support for container shipping between the Pacific Rim and European economies.
The military – notably the US, Russian and Royal Navy nuclear submarines – has also undertaken detailed research into the Arctic Ocean’s water column and learnt a great deal about its structure, properties, movement and anomalies. From the top surface, all the way down to the seabed there are layers of water travelling in different directions and at different speeds, of differing salinity, temperature, oxygenation, etc. But relatively little has been released to the scientific community, though latterly more is now surfacing.
My view, is that in the most general terms there is a continuum between adventure and exploration, with adventure tending to be more about the nature of the experience for those involved, the development of personal capacity, the vicarious entertainment enjoyed by others, and the expansion of our shared understanding of what it is possible to achieve as humans. Exploration can be all of the above, but ultimately is more about investigating environmental or social phenomena and issues, with the purpose of informing third parties of the resulting findings, whether scientists, special interest groups, government agencies or local-to-global public audiences.
While scientists are masters of their world, they often don’t have the resources to communicate the findings of their work. This has become a major social problem. To an extent, science has allowed itself to become disconnected from the people that it serves. When explorers work with scientists it can be a useful symbiotic relationship. Often the explorers are able to access areas that are too uncomfortable, arduous or hazardous for most. They can go in and make observations and collect samples on behalf of scientists who can then do the downstream analysis in the laboratories. For scientists, the key end product is normally to produce papers to be published in academic journals. Explorers can then come back in with their communication and public engagement resources, often funded by corporate sponsors, introducing the discoveries to a much wider audience, and showing how the scientists research relates to our lives at home.
Over recent decades, many would argue the natural sciences community has been drifting away from the wider tax-paying public who fund their work. This has been unfortunate. My cry is that it has never been more important and urgent in human history to explore our world, if you accept that the natural world on which we depend for our continued existence is showing signs of often severe stress in response to our activity. The better we can understand how the different ecosystems work, and how they interconnect, the better able we will be to manage our relationships with those life-supporting ecosystems.
Too many people seem to think exploration is dead, but we know far less about the oceans and their ecosystems than land-based equivalents, and heaven knows we know little enough about the latter to manage it effectively. Traditional exploration in search of resources for the mother country led to the mapping of the macro features on Earth’s land surface – river systems, mountain ranges, coastlines, ice sheets, etc. – the gaps being filled in last century by satellites. By 2000 we knew where everything was on land. But that is only phase one of planet Earth exploration in my view. The next phase, which happens to be gathering in importance and urgency, is to understand how it all works – on land and in the oceans. One role of explorers, as story makers and storytellers, is to weave into the narratives of their endeavours the issue they are investigating, their findings, and why it matters to us all.