Sunday, June 21, 2009

Greenland: Future Frontline of the Environmental Crisis?

Today, Greenland moves from being a dependency of Denmark to becoming a semi-independent state.

As the world's second largest island (after Australia) begins to exercising a greater amount of self-rule, the quasi-country is likely to become an increasingly important symbol in battles over climate change. What the Amazon basin was in the 1980's and 90's, Greenland may become in the coming decade.

Beneath it, and in its seas, Greenland is believed to contain large amounts of untapped oil and gas. Exact quantities have been difficult to predict because of the vast Greenland Ice Sheet which covers 80% of the island to a depth of 2-3km. On a global scale, The Greenland Ice Sheet is second in area to that of the Antarctic.

Needless to say, many within the oil and gas industries are looking longingly at the prospects of future extraction from Greenland - a prospect which is ironically only now possible as a result of global warming. American Oil giant ConocoPhillips, for instance, has been prospecting in Greenland since at least 2000. (2003 annual report, p. 54). Along with others, ConocoPhilips has been active in oil exploration in Peru's Amazon region, which has resulted in significant conflict with indigenous tribal groups, as previously reported on this blog.

Rising temperatures are resulting in a thaw of the ice sheet and of the seas surrounding Greenland and other Arctic islands. Average year-round temperatures in the Arctic have, over the last 100 years, doubled that of the global average, according to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Predictions of future temperature changes continue to see the Arctic region becoming warm at twice the rate of the world's average. Sea ice in the region has decreased by between 5 and 8 % since 1979 and some climatologists are predicting an Arctic with virtually ice-free oceans by the middle of the twenty-first century.

Although some are seeing in these predictions the potential for a real estate or tourist boom - the North East Greenland National Park, for instance is the largest in the world - others are taking a longer term view.

Ruth Curry, who has studied the climate of Greenland in detail, explains that the melting of the island's ice sheet is unlikely to be a gentle affair. Melting surface water trends to trickle to the base of the ice through existing fissures and crevices, creating a liquid base to the ice sheet. This in turn destabilises the ice and can result in huge "slip-and-slide" events when vast areas of ice hurtle from the land into the sea.

The ice sheet, says Curry, contains enough water to raise the global sea level by 23 feet - a height similar to that of the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004.

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