The Arctic is one area that gets a lot of focus. Each summer the media makes a big deal of the extent of Arctic sea ice melt during the warmest months of the year, focusing on navigation passages and often proclaiming that before long the summer will see all the Arctic ice melt away. The BBC never misses an opportunity to relay the story, even if it is barely mentioned elsewhere, and rolled out the latest iteration of it last week.
However there seems to be a lack of coverage about the increasing extent of sea ice in the winter. With the non stop global warming narrative burned onto the subsconscious of decision makers, it the therefore of little surprise that there has been barely any investment in new maritime icebreaking capability.
Always ahead of the game, EU Referendum pointed to this problem in March this year. Richard North reported the former Prime Minister of Estonia Tiit Vähi arguing that the country should urgently order a new icebreaker, “Instead of spending money on buying icebreaking services.” The reason? The country’s two existing icebreakers cannot cope with the “difficult ice conditions” in the Gulf of Finland. Elsewhere, North was an almost solitary voice in the western blogosphere as he reported on shipping trapped in the Sea of Okhotsk by a huge volume of thick sea ice and the subsequent challenging rescue effort.
So it is that a reader used AM’s Tips/Stories link to draw our attention to a little reported story about the way increasing sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere has resulted in Sweden withholding an icebreaker from US use in Antarctica. After increasingly bitter winters that have resulted in more iced over navigation passages, the Swedish government wrote to US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, to announce that the icebreaker Oden (pictured) will be kept at home and not be made available to support the work of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in Antarctica, for the first time since 2006.
Update: This morning, AM contacted the press office of Sweden’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Carl Bildt, and requested a copy of the letter sent to Hilary Clinton. In less than one working day the press office has located it and forwarded it to me (below). Compare that level of service to the often grudging response we in this country are subjected to when submitting Freedom of Information requests…
It validates the story published in the journal Science two weeks ago which explained:
Last month, the Swedish government abruptly ended an ongoing agreement with the U.S. National Science Foundation that allowed NSF to lease Oden, the pride of the Swedish icebreaking fleet and also the world’s most capable polar-class research vessel. NSF has used the ship each winter since 2006–07 to clear a path through the sea ice to resupply McMurdo Station, the largest scientific outpost in Antarctica and the hub for U.S. activities on the continent. The Swedish government decided that the Oden needed to stay at home this coming winter after two harsh winters disrupted shipping lanes in the region.
However, the decision was not abrupt. The move had been mooted for months and such was the concern among the Americans, Earth and Space Research (ESR) wrote to the Swedes in early May in a bid to influence them not to withdraw Oden:
And the Subcommittee on Polar Issues (see page 12 of the Minutes) of the National Science Foundation’s Committee on Programs and Plans (CPP) was also aware in May that Oden had not been secured for use. The ESR letter above highlights the importance of Oden and underscored the lack of icebreaking capability that could be drawn upon to cut a passage for supply vessels to the US Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station on Ross Island.
In July the Swedes confirmed Oden would be needed at home and therefore not be available for use in the Antarctic. The increasingly difficult ice conditions have affected commercial shipping around Sweden and the Baltic nations and the Swedes plan to keep their sea lanes more open this year using their premier icebreaker. Following the confirmation the NSF laid bare the serious implications of the icebreaker not being available to its programme in an internal letter to colleagues engaged in Polar research:
But it seems the National Science Foundation only has itself to blame for the position it found itself in, for the NSF is responsible for managing the U.S. icebreaking fleet. Under NSF management the US icebreaking fleet has been ‘emasculated’. The American fleet of icebreakers numbers three – for now. It boasted two of the most powerful non-nuclear icebreakers on the seas, Polar Sea and Polar Star, but that changed some years ago. Polar Sea is to be decommissioned next month and Polar Star has been undergoing a re-fit since 2006, but there is speculation it might never to return to service. The third, Healy is not designed for heavy icebreaking of the nature required in Antarctica.
This begs the question, why did the NSF not properly maintain the US icebreaking fleet? Could it be the faith in its own belief that global warming is reducing ice cover and therefore spending money on icebreakers would be a waste? No matter, the NSF was forced into an embarrassing and desperate search for a suitable icebreaking replacement.
Having already said it would need to find and engage a suitable replacement by mid-August, or else implement contingency plans that would curtail activities in Antarctica, it seems the NSF experienced a near-run thing. Indeed, it was only last week they announced they had agreed a contract for a smaller and less capable icebreaker, the Vladimir Ignatyuk (pictured):
The press release from the NSF, when explaining this replacement Russian vessel had been drafted in because Oden would not be available, avoided mentioning the reason for the Swedish decision. You can see how the two icebreakers measure up on Wikipedia – Oden / Vladimir Ignatyuk.
The story may seem trivial in isolation. But the fact that no newspaper appears to have picked it up so far tells its own story. Maybe it is because there is a media agenda to avoid covering stories that could lead to people questioning commonly made assertions about global warming. Which is why the news and the more important issues underpinning it exist behind paywalls, in house journals and little read snippets from entities such as the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office…
In Estonia and Sweden at least reality is starting to bite. How long before it takes hold elsewhere?