Sept. 17, 2012
French photographer Samuel Blanc has been leading tours to Svalbard, Norway's archipelago in the Arctic, since 2007. This year the reduced sea ice extent allowed his expedition aboard the 12-passenger Polaris to circumnavigate the northern islands in early July rather than mid-August. Climate change is having a direct impact on the unique ecosystem isolated on these islands more than 400 miles north of Europe. In the following photos, Blanc gives us a tour of life on the archipelago's largest island, Spitsbergen. You can see more of his work at www.sblanc.com.
In west Spitsbergen, Little Auks, such as those pictured here, and other birds aren't safe on the cliffs. Hungry polar bears have learned to climb the steep gradients in search of food.
Polar Bears and Bleeding Glaciers
The dissolved iron seen in this glacier may help fight climate change. As the iron washes into the northern seas, it can help fertilize phytoplankton blooms that draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
As global warming melts permafrost in the arctic, more carbon is released into the atmosphere. Meanwhile areas of tundra are also seeing a rise in fires.
The vast stretch of open water due to thinning of the Arctic sea ice is forcing walruses to often crowd together on beaches.
This bearded seal has found a safe spot away from polar bears and sharks. Many seals however also snooze in the water, where they are at risk of becoming of meal for the Greenland shark, the world's slowest shark.
Only three percent of the total population of arctic fox are called "Blue fox" and unlike the rest of the population, these blue critters don't turn white in the winter.
These foxes are showing their summer colors.
The past couple of years have been, to put it mildly, an embarrassment to Shell’s plans to drill for offshore oil in the Alaskan Arctic. In 2011 and 2012, the company’s drilling efforts in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas suffered a catalog of errors, including, noted the FuelFix blog:
the drifting of Shell’s contracted drillship Noble Discoverer near Dutch Harbor, Alaska [in 2011]. Later, Shell’s first-of-its-kind spill containment barge was damaged during certification tests. Finally, weeks after drilling was done for the year, a fire broke out on the Discoverer’s rig stack, and safety and pollution-control system deficiencies were discovered on the ship in November.
It all came to an ignominious head at the end of 2012, when the drilling rig Kulluk (pictured top) ran aground off an Alaskan island last New Year’s Eve. That was one Keystone Cops misadventure too far; in February, Shell announced that it would not be returning to the Alaskan Arctic in 2013.
In April, ConocoPhillips went one step further and announced it had suspended its plans to go drilling in 2014. That led to some industry and media speculation that both companies might be setting the stage for a longer-term absence from the region — that the combination of operational difficulties, regulatory challenges, and the higher profitability of shale gas meant that attempting to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean simply wasn’t worth while.
A Reuters report in May argued that, “the high Arctic, once the irresistible frontier for oil and gas exploration, is quickly losing its appeal as energy firms grow fearful of the financial and public relations risk of working in the pristine icy wilderness.” EnergyWire quoted Lois Epstein of The Wilderness Society predicting that, ”On Arctic Ocean development, I wouldn’t be surprised if Shell withdraws when they find an appropriate time. And then the other dominoes will fall after that.”
Such optimism (or, depending on your point of view, pessimism) may have been misplaced, with FuelFix now reporting that Shell intends to return to Arctic waters in 2014, albeit on a reduced scale. According to the blog, Shell plans to “soon file a broad Chukchi Sea drilling blueprint with federal regulators at the Interior Department. The company will not seek to resume drilling in 2014 in the shallower Beaufort Sea, where the floating Kulluk had operated last year.” A company spokesperson noted that Shell had not yet committed to a return – and FuelFlex listed a number of logistical and regulatory hurdles that would have to be cleared — but that it was “putting the building blocks in place.”
In response, Greenpeace’s Ben Ayliffe stated that, ”In 2012 Shell proved that it is completely unfit to drill in the remote Arctic, a place of unrivaled beauty where any spill would be an environmental disaster. In April it signed a joint deal with Russia’s state owned giant Gazprom, one of the world’s most polluting oil companies with a record of serious negligence. Shell has run out of options, and is prepared to gamble its reputation on projects and partnerships that other oil companies have dismissed as far too risky.”
Image: Royal Dutch Shell floating drill rig Kulluk in place over their Sivulliq N. U.S. Federal continental shelf petroleum lease in the Beaufort Sea, Arctic Ocean, approx 12 miles off the Alaska Coast, on Oct. 7, 2012. Credit: Corbis