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Subhankar Banerjee: Shell Game in the Arctic

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Headlined to H3 8/2/12

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

Think of it as a shell game of the worst sort, and we're the ones being taken for a ride.  Thanks to the burning of the fossil fuels that oil giants like Royal Dutch Shell are increasingly eager to extract from some of the most difficult environments on the planet, the vast quantities of carbon dioxide being sent into the atmosphere, and the way the oceans to absorb CO2, offshore waters are in the process of acidifying.  By the end of this century, ocean acidity could be up by 200%, according to James Barry, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.  It turns out to be a disaster for -- you guessed it -- shellfish.

A recent study found that "more than half the near-shore waters governed by the California Current system [off the West Coast] are likely to become so acidic throughout the year that many shell-building organisms will be unable to maintain their armor."  This is obviously bad news for marine creatures, "ranging from tiny plankton to headliners for bouillabaisse and bisque."  And don't think it's just those oysters, clams, and lobsters, either.  Thanks to ocean acidification, coral reefs are, scientists agree, suffering a similar fate now.  They are already globally in significant decline: "In the Caribbean, for example, 75-85% of the coral cover has been lost in the last 35 years."

On the other hand, one Shell is fortifying itself.  That's Shell Oil, whose drill ships, as Subhankar Banerjee writes, are heading for America's Arctic seas, with the blessing of the Obama administration, to begin oil exploration in a region whose ice and fierce weather are a formula for disaster.  Banerjee, a wondrously skilled photographer (whose 2003 exhibit on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History experienced a strange political fate in Bush-era Washington), has spent much time capturing an Arctic world that may soon enough be irreparably damaged.  He has also edited a new book, Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (Seven Stories Press), that includes some of his remarkable photos and a no less remarkable line-up of voices from a fast-melting Arctic most of us know far too little about.  He's the genuine thing.  Unfortunately, so much else is indeed a Shell game. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Banerjee discusses the importance of the Arctic, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Walking the Waters:
How to Bring the Major Oil Companies Ashore and Halt the Destruction of Our Oceans
By Subhankar Banerjee

When you go to the mountains, you go to the mountains.  When it's the desert, it's the desert.  When it's the ocean, though, we generally say that we're going "to the beach."  Land is our element, not the waters of our world, and that is an unmistakable advantage for any oil company that wants to drill in pristine waters.

Take Shell Oil.  Recently, the company's drill ship, the fabulously named Noble Discoverer, went adrift and almost grounded in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.  That should be considered an omen for a distinctly star-crossed venture to come.  Unfortunately, few of us are paying the slightest attention.

Shell is getting ready to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, an ecosystem staggeringly rich in life of every sort, and while it's not yet quite a done deal, the prospect should certainly focus our minds.  But first, it's worth reminding ourselves of the mind-boggling richness of the life still in our oceans.

Last month began with a once-in-a-lifetime sighting in Monterey Bay, California, startlingly close to shore, of blue whales.  Those gigantic mammals can measure up to 100 feet, head-to-tail, and weigh nearly 200 tons -- the largest animal by weight ever to have lived on this planet. Yes, even heavier than dinosaurs. The biggest of them, Amphicoelias fragillimus, is estimated to have weighed 122 tons, while the largest blue whale came in at a whopping 195 tons.

The recent Monterey Bay sighting is being called "the most phenomenal showing of th[os]e endangered mammals in recent history." On July 5th alone, the Monterey Bay Whale Watch reported sightings of "12 blue whales, 40 humpback whales, 400 Risso's dolphins, 300 northern right whale dolphins, 250 Pacific white-sided dolphins, and two minke whales."

"Everywhere you go you just see blows" -- that is, the blues spouting -- Nancy Black, owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel. It seems that the abundance of krill, the tiny shrimp-like creatures that the whales feed on, attracted about 100 of the blues. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, they were abundant with an estimated population of more than 200,000 living in the Southern (or Antarctic) Ocean alone. Then they were hunted nearly to extinction. Today, only about 10,000 of them are believed to exist.

Dog Day Afternoon in the Arctic

If you follow the pacific coastline from Monterey all the way north, sooner or later you'll arrive at Kivalina along the Chukchi Sea coast in the Alaskan Arctic. Keep going along that coastline even further north and you'll pass by Point Hope, Point Lay, Wainright, and finally Barrow -- the northernmost town in the United States.

At Barrow, you'll be at the confluence of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas of the Arctic Ocean. Now, head east along the Beaufort Sea coast to Nuiqsut, and Kaktovik, both Iñupiat communities. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are remarkably rich in krill, and home to the endangered bowhead whale. It may not be quite as large as the blue, but head-to-tail it can still measure an impressive enough 66 feet and weigh up to 75 tons, and it has one special attribute.  It is believed to be the longest-lived mammal on the planet.

Like blues, bowheads were also abundant -- an estimated population of 30,000 well into the mid-nineteenth century.  Then commercial whalers began hunting them big time, driving them nearly extinct in less than 50 years. Today, about 10,000 bowhead whales live in the Arctic Ocean. Blues and bowheads could be considered the elders of the sea.

While the blues were feeding in Monterey Bay, Shell's drill ships, the Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk, were migrating north, with the hope of drilling for oil in those very waters this summer. Unlike the jubilant tourists, scientists, and residents of the California coast, the Iñupiat people of the Arctic coast are now living in fear of Shell's impending arrival; and little wonder, as that oil giant is about to engage in what may be the most dangerous form of drilling anywhere on Earth.  After all, no one actually knows how to clean up an oil spill that happens under the ice in the harsh conditions of the Arctic Ocean. Despite that, the Obama administration has been fast-tracking Shell's dangerous drilling plan, while paying remarkably little attention to the ecological fears it raises and the potential devastation a major spill or spills would cause to the native peoples of the north.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 
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