Anacapa Students Report on Talk by Polar Expert Kristin Larson
By Elena Alcerro (grade 10) and Morgan Lamberti (grade 10)
On December 10, 2014, Kristin Larson spoke at the Channel City Club’s Festive Annual Holiday Luncheon Program. Her talk was titled “Our Polar Regions in Transition: Emerging Issues and Opportunities in a Time of Thaw.” Kristin Larson is an experienced scientist, explorer, and attorney. In addition to having graduate degrees in chemistry, biochemistry, and bioengineering, she also has her J.D. from George Washington University Law School. Ever the explorer, she has conducted 50 months of scientific research on the ice caps of Antarctica.
To begin her lecture, Larson gave us an in-depth background on the history and fragile ecosystems of the Arctic and the Antarctic. They are both axial regions and are dominated by polar icecaps and wind; however, the Arctic is predominantly an icy sea circle with scattered landmasses encircling it. These landmasses are at the height of sea level. This is the opposite of the Antarctic, which is the highest continent at a height of 14,000 feet; a freezing ocean surrounds it. The Antarctic and the Arctic both maintain a balance between resiliency and vulnerability. They have very few keystone species, and even fewer predators. When one species dies out, there is no species to take its place in that specific ecological niche. This means that the ecosystems can easily become unbalanced and are susceptible to collapse.
The main topic of Larson’s discussion detailed the Arctic Nations and the Arctic Council, as well as the involvement of the “A5” countries (Russia, the United States, Norway, Greenland, and Canada), and the problems coinciding in the Arctic. The A5 countries border the Arctic and have been negotiating to stake and extend territorial claims. They wish to create economic zones and to extend their individual continental shelves. No claims are secured under international law as of yet, but the pace at which sea ice is melting has hastened the international discussion as to what is to be done with the Arctic.
As of the summer of 2012, there is the lowest measure of sea ice recorded, specifically the multi-year ice, which tends to be sturdier. The multi-year ice is lighter in color, which means that it reflects the light, making it somewhat incapable of retaining heat. This fact makes it less susceptible to melting and breaking. The fact that this ice is melting at such an extensive rate worries those in the international science community. However, the melting of sea ice has opened up a sea route from Yokohama, Japan to Rotterdam, which is thirty percent shorter than the traditional route. Ships are taking advantage of this transit lane between Europe and Asia and are using it to exploit the vast international waters by illegal fishing.
There are many problems mounting for the A5 to deal with. One major problem is the lack of infrastructure and the fact that it is not a sovereign territory with a foundation for government. There is no substantial governing council to oversee negotiations on controversial issues between international powers. It took Russia and Norway forty years to settle a dispute over a small amount of territory allocated for fishing. Other issues include environmental challenges stemming from overfishing, as well as harmful effects of the ice melting in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans. There are also problems associated with border control of the surrounding regions, where there is access to A5 countries whose Arctic borders are not heavily guarded. Furthermore there is an influx of marine species that are migrating toward the Arctic basin, causing an imbalance in the ecosystem. A lack of search-and-rescue resources in the area, along with a low capacity to clean up oil spills and other damaging effects caused by humans, leads to opportunities for potentially devastating consequences to the Arctic.
Similar problems like this in the Antarctic led to the development of the Antarctic Treaty. In Antarctica there was massive over-harvesting of seals, and the tensions between the interested nations were aggravated by the Cold War. In 1957 and 1958, there was an international geophysical year that acted as a springboard for the Antarctic Treaty, which banned military presence, set up freedom of scientific inquiry, invalidated any existing territorial claims, and set up environmental protection including marine reserves. The Treaty previously included 12 parties, but it has now been signed by 50 countries and includes 75 percent of the human population. After the Treaty, there was an increase in the seal population and a rise in commercial fishing.
Kristin Larson is hopeful for a solution that would be beneficial to the Arctic’s future. The boundaries are becoming more heavily disputed because the rapidly disappearing ice caps are making the borders inconceivable and leaving room for controversy.
Larson ended her discussion by sharing her three solutions that she believes would bring closure to the problems in the Arctic and Antarctic. Her first is to recognize the exclusive economic zones and the territorial seas. Her second is to form sectoral positions by drawing straight lines from the North Pole to A5 countries. She would also like to see a treaty, such as the Antarctic Treaty, that would create a committee to manage the Arctic’s affairs.
Larson concluded the lecture by captivating her audience with her discussion of international issues stemming from liquidation of the ice caps and unsettled boundary lines in the Arctic.