SEASON TWO | EPISODE SEVEN
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Nick Mott This season of Threshold is underwritten by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Amy Martin Where do you, where do you stand when you are out, like, when you’re doing this? I want to stand next to you. We’ll pretend we’re on the ice.
Pasi Järvelin OK, OK.
Amy Martin Welcome to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and I’m inside a giant ship docked in the port of Helsinki, Finland. It’s an icebreaker named Polaris, and Pasi Järvelin is the captain.
Pasi Järvelin It’s very exciting, I like ice breaking a lot, yes.
Amy Martin We’re up on the bridge, at the top of the ship. It’s so tall we actually took an elevator to get here. An icebreaker is a special kind of ship designed to cut channels into sea ice so other ships can get through. They’re like the offensive line of the ship world, they power through the ice cutting pathways for research boats, oil tankers, military ships; basically, any craft hoping to travel through polar oceans may need assistance from an icebreaker.
Pasi Järvelin So, you can go and sit there.
Amy Martin That’s your seat?
Pasi Järvelin Yeah.
Amy Martin The Polaris is very new; the bridge is sleek and modern, with huge tinted windows. From Pasi’s seat, I’m looking at dozens of screens and panels full of inscrutable switches and knobs.
Amy Martin I feel like I’m in some sort of combination of a dentist’s chair and the USS Enterprise. It’s ah – whoa!
Amy Martin Pasi had pushed a button that made the chair I was sitting in roll forward and lock into place, apparently so the captain can stay right where he or she needs to be, even when the seas get rough.
Amy Martin Like, if we were going through ice right now, what does it look like from up here, like what would you be seeing? I mean is the ice piling up on either side of you?
Pasi Järvelin [LAUGHS] Well it’s a quite masculine job yes, I would say.
Amy Martin You feel like a badass is what you’re saying?
Pasi Järvelin Yes, like a badass, yes.
Amy Martin Tell me more, like what, what, how’re you feeling when you’re out there breaking up some ice?
Pasi Järvelin Well, like they say in Titanic, I’m the king of the world. (laughter)
Amy Martin You know you’re in the presence of a confident icebreaker captain when he has no qualms about referencing the Titantic while standing on his ship.
Amy Martin The whole point of an icebreaker, is, of course, to break ice. And that might seem like an odd thing to do, because if there’s one thing almost everyone has heard about the Arctic, it’s that the sea ice is breaking up all on its own.
In this episode, we’re going to find out why loss of sea ice matters – not only for animals and people that live in the Arctic, but for all of us. But we’re also going to explore an aspect of this story that you might not have heard about: the melting of Arctic ice could actually lead to a huge economic boom in the region, in all kinds of sectors – including, somewhat ironically, icebreaking.
In the long run, climate change will almost certainly be humankind’s most expensive folly ever. But as economist John Maynard Keynes famously said, in the long run, we’re all dead. And in the meantime, there’s money to be made in a melting Arctic. We’re going to dive into this confusing mixture of threat and opportunity on this episode of Threshold.
Amy Martin So, let’s get a little sea ice 101 here, starting with the obvious: what is sea ice, exactly?
Mark Serreze Sea ice is any form of ice that forms on the ocean.
Amy Martin This is Mark Serreze, the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado.
Mark Serreze Now sea ice can range from a thin veneer, you know, half an inch thick or less up to in places maybe even 10 meters thick or more, so it’s quite variable.
Amy Martin You might have heard sea ice referred to as a “polar ice cap,” but that sort of makes it sound like a fixed, stationary thing. Actually, sea ice changes dramatically with the seasons: it grows in the winter, when the Arctic is very cold and dark, and then dies back every summer, when the region gets pounded by non-stop sunlight. And, Mark says, sea ice moves.
Mark Serreze It’s not just some featureless slab. The sea ice is in constant motion under the influence of winds and ocean currents.
Amy Martin Those currents send the ice around the Arctic along fairly predictable routes. It gets pushed out of the Arctic in some places, and piles up in others. And while all of this is happening, the sea ice is also aging.
Mark Serreze Now how this works is this. Let’s say we have a big open water area in the Arctic. Well fall, comes along and sea ice forms. Some of that sea ice that forms in the autumn is just going to melt away the next summer.
Amy Martin But, some of it will survive – it will make it through the summer intact, and then harden and grow in the fall, when the sea starts to freeze up again. That makes it second year ice. If it survives another year, it becomes third year ice, etc. And as the ice ages, it gets thicker, and stronger.
Mark says the whole combination of age classes and thicknesses in a certain area is known as an “ice regime.” And if a group of climate scientists hasn’t already formed a metal band under that name, all I can say is – you’re welcome.
Mark Serreze So ice is always forming in the Arctic, and we’re always melting ice in the Arctic, during the summer, but some of it’s always being exported as well. And if we thought of a steady climate, there would be just an overall balance between these processes over a number of years.
Amy Martin You lose some sea ice every summer, you gain some back every winter, but the total amount of sea ice stays more or less stable.
Mark Serreze But what we’re seeing now is that that balance has been disrupted.
Amy Martin One of the ways scientists can see this is by measuring sea ice extent, the total surface area covered by ice.
Mark Serreze The extent is dropping. Ahm, since the dawn of this of the modern satellite record, ah, 1979, it’s decreasing in all months. In September especially. September is the end of the melt season in the Arctic and that’s when the biggest trends have been occurring. Something like 13 percent per decade it’s tremendous.
Amy Martin But that’s not the only thing scientists are watching carefully these days.
Mark Serreze There’s very, very strong evidence that the ice cover is also thinning as well. Everything we look at is saying it’s thinning.
Amy Martin As we warm the climate, Arctic ice regimes are getting younger, and weaker.
Mark Serreze Basically it’s getting so warm now, that it’s hard to form all this really old thick multi-year ice and some of that old thick multi-year ice just melts away. And some of it is exported out of the Arctic Ocean. But we really can’t regenerate it anymore.
Amy Martin So if you think of the Earth as a cupcake, and the sea ice as the frosting, what Mark’s saying is that less and less of the top of that cupcake is getting frosted each year, and the frosting layer is getting thinner and thinner. Or, in more technical terms, smaller surface area, less volume. And that means–
Mark Serreze The health of the ice cover is not very good.
Amy Martin And this is a big deal, for lots of reasons. One of the most important is something called albedo. And whether or not you’ve heard that word, you’re almost certainly familiar with this concept from your own experience. If you’re wearing a dark shirt on a bright sunny day, you can feel it absorbing the heat from the sun. A lighter colored shirt keeps you cooler. And if you think of this on a planetary scale, for all of human history, the sea ice in the Arctic has been a big white shirt: a giant reflective shield, bouncing heat away from us. That’s albedo.
Mark Serreze Well if we think about what, what sea ice is, it’s one of the one of the higher albedo surfaces of our planet.
Amy Martin And when it comes to albedo in the Arctic, it’s what happens to sea ice in the summertime that really matters, of course, because that’s the only time the polar north gets any significant sunlight. So, if the Arctic can hold on to that white sea ice during the summer months, it can reflect a lot of that solar energy back out into space. But if a ton of ice melts away in the summer and the Arctic turns into mostly dark blue open ocean, a lot of that heat gets absorbed instead, adding more warmth to the climate.
Basically, as we melt the Arctic sea ice, we’re turning what was a heat shield into a heat sponge. And you can probably already see the feedback loop here: less sea ice means a weaker albedo, which in turn leads to more warming. Which leads to more ice loss. And on and on.
Mark Serreze And so it has a big effect a very strong effect on our planet.
Amy Martin And sea ice does tons of other stuff for us, too: it helps to keep the jet stream moving, which affects weather across the northern hemisphere. It has a big impact on the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean. Honestly, it would probably take several episodes to describe all of the ways sea ice affects the planet, but the key take-away for each of those processes is the same: just like permafrost, sea ice is providing a lot of services for us. And as we warm up the planet, we’re making it harder for the ice to do that work on our behalf.
Trying to predict when we’ll have our first ice-free summertime in the Arctic has become something of a macabre guessing game. But whether it’s in 5 years or 50, it looks quite likely that that’s where we’re headed.
Richard Beneville [SINGING] Oh we ain’t got a barrel of money, maybe we’re ragged and – I like the old stuff – funny. But we’ll travel along, singing a song – Ethel Merman was my idol – side by side.
Amy Martin I’m now in Nome, Alaska with Richard Beneville.
Richard Beneville B-E-N-E-V-I-L-L-E. First name Richard. And I’m mayor of Nome. And it’s a kick in the ass.
[NICK AND AMY LAUGH]
Amy Martin Nome is a town of about 38-hundred people, sitting on the southern side of the Seward Peninsula, the knob of land that sticks out into the Bering Sea toward Russia, way out on Alaska’s western coast. Nome was a gold rush boom town, and it still feels kind of wild-westy, with lots of bars and streets that turn into gravel roads as soon as you leave the main drag. Richard grew up in a completely different reality: he was born in New Jersey and spent a lot of time in New York City. He’s giving producer Nick Mott and me a tour in his van.
Richard Beneville My ambition all my life had been the theater. I’m a song and dance man! Give me a microphone and a top hat and a pair of tap shoes – I started tap dancing when I was six! Hello central!
Amy Martin That’s his catch phrase. Richard says he was an up-and-comer in the New York theater scene in his youth, but he had a drinking problem, so his family intervened and sent him to live with his brother in Alaska. And Richard never left. He’s spent the last 36 of his 73 years in the state. He founded a tourism company, led popular after-school programs for the kids of Nome for decades, and he was elected mayor in 2015.
Richard Beneville This is a cool town. This is a really cool town. And it’s a cool time to be mayor because so many exciting things are happening.
Amy Martin Like what?
Richard Beneville The opening of the Arctic. I mean, we could start there.
Nick Mott When you say the opening of the Arctic, what do you mean?
Richard Beneville You ask what’s happening? What’s happening is the increased accessibility of going through the Bering Strait for a longer period of time each year because of climate change, and the opening up of what is referred to by many as a new ocean. And that would be the Arctic.
Amy Martin More ships of almost every type are coming to the Arctic, including cruise ships.
Richard Beneville When you think of cruising worldwide, for many, many years it was pretty much the Mediterranean, and equatorial. Well, that’s changed. And it’s changed because of a number of things, but most importantly climate change.
Amy Martin Richard says cruise ships have been coming to Nome for at least 20 years, but these days there are a lot more, and they’re bigger.
Richard Beneville If people can get there, they’ll go. Tourism according to Dicky.
Amy Martin Some Arctic communities aren’t very excited about the increasing cruise traffic. Many of the ships carry groups of people several times larger than the populations of the towns they stop in. One person on the Norwegian island of Svalbard told me about how cruisers tends to walk in and out her home as if it were a shop, or a museum. And ships can bring other problems too, pollution and disturbances to wildlife. But they also bring a lot of money, and Richard welcomes the ships to Nome with open arms.
Richard Beneville It’s an opportunity for us to shine. Not just Nome, but the region.
Amy Martin Richard wants to deepen Nome’s port, so more big ships can dock there. And he’s hopeful those ships will bring more than tourists – he sees a future with Nome as a major way-station, with Arctic ship traffic driving a growth in population and jobs and prosperity. He’s not blind to the downsides of losing Arctic sea ice. But, as mayor of Nome, his focus is helping his community, and if he can harness the forces of climate change to do that, he will.
Richard Beneville Now we have a cruise that begins in Seward, Alaska, comes up, spends...as I say, you know, 800 people come to tea, and ah, then goes on across Northwest Passage, Greenland, and down the eastern coast, Nova Scotia, all of that, and then ends in New York City. Well, now that really is an interesting thing!
Amy Martin He’s talking about a ship called the Crystal Serenity. In 2016, it carried 1,700 passengers and crew from Anchorage, Alaska to New York City in 32 days. It was the first large cruise ship to navigate the Northwest Passage, the fabled route that goes north over Alaska and cuts through the vast high Arctic Canadian archipelago. And the Serenity did the trip again the next year. Nome was one of the first stops on both of those journeys, and Richard finds the whole thing very exciting.
Amy Martin Do you think you’ll ever get on that boat, and go back to New York? Richard Beneville Oh, there’s nothing more I’d like to do then to go back and to arrive in New York on the Serenity or on a big cruise. No, that would just thrill me to death, are you kidding? First of all, I love ships. Secondly, New York harbor’s about a kick in the butt, hello central. And thirdly, then go back to New York where I once lived, yeah, that all would be very exciting.
Amy Martin If that happens, I want to come document the mayor of Nome meeting the mayor of New York City.
Richard Beneville Well, you know, we’re mayors here.
Amy Martin And you’re a New Yorker!
Richard Beneville I’m a New Yorker, you know!
Amy Martin But Richard is just as much of a Nome-y as a New Yorker, and above all else, he is a performer. And one thing every performer knows, is that come hell or high water, the show must go on.
Richard Beneville Yeah, I love the role from Cabaret and the opening. What a wonderful opening for an actor. Black stage, spotlight, drumroll, and in white face and a white tux and cutaway tails, come down with my cane and whoosh whoosh whoosh chicka bom ding ding ticka dom Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome...
Amy Martin It seems worth mentioning that the musical Cabaret was based on a novella called The Berlin Stories, set in early 1930s Germany. A review of that book in the LA Times describes it this way: “the offbeat vagabonds the narrator meets are lost in hedonistic pursuits, oblivious to the horror massing on the horizon.”
We’ll have more after this short break.
Tero Vauraste There is approximately 130 icebreakers in the whole world, and around two-thirds of those have been designed and built in Finland.
Amy Martin Welcome back to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and I’ve returned to Finland. I’m talking to Tero Vauraste. He’s the CEO of Arctia, a state-owned company which owns and operates nine icebreakers, including the Polaris, which I was touring at the beginning of this episode. Tero says this country of just five-and-a-half million people makes more icebreakers than any other nation.
Tero Vauraste So we dare to say that we are the world champion in icebreaking. Not in ice hockey, not every year, but in ice breaking.
Amy Martin And the icebreaker industry is growing, thanks in large part to climate change.
Tero Vauraste There are now new areas and new types of operations which can be conducted with the help of an icebreaker which were more or less impossible 20, 30, 40 years ago.
Amy Martin I met Tero in Arctia’s floating office building in the heart of Helsinki, right next to where the Polaris was docked. He’s a high-energy man of 50 -- in addition to running Arctia, he’s the chairman of the Arctic Economic Council. That’s kind of like an international chamber of commerce for the Arctic – they promote and facilitate business development in the polar north. And Tero says, for people looking to make money in the Arctic, the future is bright.
Tero Vauraste There will be definitely new opportunities for investors and new opportunities for the global value chain thinking in here.
Amy Martin The melting of Arctic sea ice is stimulating growth in many industries, and shipping is one of the big ones. Tero says there are three main shipping routes opening up in the Arctic.
Tero Vauraste Which are the Northern Sea Route, going along the Russian coast, the Northwest Passage going through the Canadian archipelago, and the so-called Polar Route.
Amy Martin So let’s break those three routes down for a minute here. Let’s call route one the Northwest Passage, that’s the one Richard Benneville was excited about, on the North American side of the globe.
Route number two is the Northern Sea Route, it skirts the Russian coastline and goes up and over the Scandinavian Peninsula. You can think of it as a way to connect Asia to Europe without having to go around India and through the Suez Canal. And depending on where you launch and land, the Northern Sea Route can be several thousands miles shorter and 10 – 15 days faster than that traditional southern path.
The third route Tero mentioned is the Transpolar Sea Route, which cuts more or less straight across the top of the world. It won’t really become usable until or unless we have consistently ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean. But in the meantime, traffic on the other two routes is on the rise, especially on the Northern Sea Route. And that means a greater demand for icebreakers.
Tero Vauraste Absolutely. So I’m often asked, well, the ice is melting, who needs icebreakers? But it’s actually vice versa. Yeah, there is less ice, but it doesn’t mean that the conditions get easier. They actually are more variable.
Amy Martin Given the fact that we are losing so much sea ice, when we break the ice with ice breaking ships, does it actually accelerate the melting of ice?
Tero Vauraste So, it depends on the conditions. But this type of environmental impact is marginal.
Amy Martin Tero says the channels that the icebreakers open up generally refreeze pretty quickly. What’s much more significant, he says, is the waste the ships generate, and the spectre of an oil spill. The volume of goods being moved along the Northern Sea Route has been growing by millions of tons every year, and many of those ships use or carry heavy fuel oil, which releases a particularly nasty form of carbon into the atmosphere, and would be extremely hard to remove from frigid Arctic waters in the event of a spill.
Tero Vauraste There will be increase in the transit traffic, increase in tourism, and of course the great investment potential which is worth one trillion. One trillion dollars is spread around the Arctic.
Amy Martin In 2008, the US Geological Survey released a report that said that the Arctic holds 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas, and that it’s the biggest area of unexplored petroleum left on the planet. Countries and companies around the world are eyeing those deposits, trying to figure if or when or how it will become economically feasible to go after them.
Some of that oil and gas is onshore, but a lot of it is under the sea. In Canada, there’s currently a ban on offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic. President Obama instituted a similar ban, which was overturned by President Trump.
In fact, as we were preparing this episode for release, the U.S. Department of the Interior gave provisional approval for the Liberty Energy Project, off the North Slope of Alaska. There’s more permitting that needs to be done, but if the project goes forward it will be the first oil to be extracted from U.S. Arctic federal waters.
Tero Vauraste But the biggest investment potential is in the Russian areas. About 20 percent of the Russian GDP is coming from the Arctic areas.
Amy Martin Russia is already extracting huge amounts of natural gas in northern Siberia, then liquefying it, putting it into tankers, and shipping it out along the Northern Sea Route, bound for Europe and Asia. And fossil fuels aren’t the only resources in the Arctic. There are also minerals, and metals – including the rare Earth metals that are used in our cell phones and computers. And Tero says there’s potential for developing renewable energy in the Arctic, too.
Tero Vauraste The common thinking that, well, this is an issue, which is related to oil and gas. Yes, it is one part, but it’s not the whole story.
Amy Martin Still, the prospect of all of this development raises some questions.
Amy Martin Do you feel like there’s a danger profiting off of this kind of global disaster?
Tero Vauraste Well, that’s what everybody tries to put me to. But I’m not going there. Because I’m saying that the Arctic is not a park to be preserved. Nor is it a dirty area where big nasty companies conduct their dirty business. But it’s an area where you need to have a holistic approach on whatever you do.
Amy Martin I asked Tero what he meant by a holistic approach, and he said it meant thinking about environmental impacts and the people who live in the Arctic, not just profit. But is there a holistic, environmentally sound way to ramp up extraction of oil and gas? There are certainly ways to drill that are more or less damaging, but even if we don’t spill a drop of oil during the extraction process, once we drill it, we burn it. And that damages the Arctic, and the rest of the planet.
Tero Vauraste We have to bear in mind that the developments in the Arctic are mainly a result of human activities outside the Arctic. So the actions to be taken to make sure that the Arctic will not be damaged totally have to take place outside the Arctic. And this is an issue which is so often forgotten, that we need to work on the Paris Climate Agreement goals and other sort of environmental goals. But the main actors and the main problems are definitely not coming from the Arctic areas.
Amy Martin That’s true. As a region, the Arctic has contributed a very small proportion of climate-warming emissions. But that’s largely because it’s been frozen, which has kept the population low, and limited the very sort of development from which Arctia and many other companies are now poised to profit.
Amy Martin And it only takes a quick glance around the globe to see that when oil and gas are found, conflict often follows. Already, there have been troop increases, military base expansions, and other forms of saber-rattling in the north.
Mark Serreze The Arctic is a place where climate change and geopolitics are just becoming incredibly intertwined.
Amy Martin Again, Mark Serreze.
Mark Serreze Remember Vladimir Putin some time ago had a couple of submersibles going down and putting a Russian flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean to claim it as theirs, right? It’s the sort of thing that has people concerned because it’s this brave new world up there in the Arctic. So it is becoming more accessible as we lose the ice cover, and we’ll see if that development is peaceable or not.
Amy Martin There are reasons to hope that this development could be peaceable: an intergovernmental forum called the Arctic Council has been working for decades to that end. This is a different organization from the Arctic Economic Council that Tero Vauraste leads; if that’s the chamber of commerce for the polar north, the Arctic Council is kind of like a mini- UN. All eight Arctic countries are part of it, along with six indigenous organizations. And the members of the Council collaborate on a big range of scientific projects, and they’ve made agreements to help each other out on search and rescue missions, and potential oil spills.
This kind of work isn’t flashy – it’s a lot of meetings, and memos, and long reports – and it’s not going to stop the development of the Arctic. But it does hold some promise for a mutually agreed-upon set of rules. And some high-ranking Arctic Council officials have suggested the region could become something of a demonstration project for how countries can work together to solve climate change. But that would mean leaving massive oil and gas deposits untapped. Mark Serreze says it comes down to facing a very fundamental fact:
Mark Serreze We built an entire society around fossil fuels. But what we didn’t really understand, or maybe did not want to understand, is that it’s a trap.
Amy Martin When you say that our fossil fuel society is a trap, can you explain a little bit more what you mean by that?
Mark Serreze Oh, I mean, you know, it’s a trap because incredible amount of energy and a lump of coal or a gallon of gasoline and we’ve built a whole society around that. All our buildings, our cities, everything OK. The trap is that we’re changing the very nature of our atmosphere and changing our very climate. That’s the trap.
Amy Martin And even as we become aware of this trap that we’ve set for ourselves, we can’t seem to resist stepping further and further into it. We’ve talked about how losing permafrost and sea ice can trigger a feedback loop, sort of chain reaction of warming. Well this is the human version of the same concept. As we warm the planet by burning fossil fuels, it’s allowing us to access more of those same fossil fuels. Which, if we drill, and burn, will create more warming.
And although we might wrangle and even fight over who owns what in the Arctic for the next several decades, in a few centuries, all of that will really just be a footnote to the big story here: if we continue to melt the Arctic sea ice, we’re heading for a radically different planet. It will have a much less stable climate, and probably, much less stable human societies.
David Leavitt Long time ago, that ah, good ice all the time. Really not good ice anymore.
Amy Martin This is David Leavitt, he’s 88 years old, and for him, this connection between loss of sea ice and cultural disruption isn’t theoretical, and it’s not in the future. It’s now. We’ll meet him and other Arctic hunters next time on Threshold.
Nick Mott Our production partners for season two of Threshold are Montana Public Radio and PRI’s The World. Our reporting was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Park Foundation.
Amy Martin Threshold is made by Nick Mott, Rachel Cramer, Cheryl Skibicki and me, Amy Martin, with help from Frank Allen, Jackson Barnett, Josh Burnham, Michael Connor, Rosie Costain, Matt Herlihy, Rachel Klein, Zoë Rom, Nora Saks, Maxine Speier and Zach Wilson. Special thanks to Lassi Heininen, Andres Jato, Michael Kodas, René Söderman, Jim White and Tom Yulsman. Our music is by Travis Yost.