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Endurance: how can we protect the polar regions?

6 min read

Melting polar icecaps are opening up shipping lanes and making resource extraction increasingly viable, but they’re also giving rise to urgent new global environmental and geopolitical issues that the world must solve. Zero Pressure podcast host Helen Sharman speaks to Professor Klaus Dodds to find out what can be done.

“Ice is integral to the future of the Earth,” says Professor Klaus Dodds, Executive Dean for the School of Life Sciences and Environment at Royal Holloway, and the first guest in series two of the Zero Pressure podcast from Imperial College London and Saab.

Professor Dodds, an expert in geopolitics with specific focus on the international governance of polar regions, tells the show’s host, the UK’s first astronaut Dr Helen Sharman, about the ability of ice to reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere and cool the Earth (‘the Albedo Effect’). But he also explains how shrinking ice levels through global warming have created a “multiscalar issue” for our planet. For example, shrinking ice levels create problems on multiple levels; local, nationally, regionally and even globally.

We need to quantify the impacts of climate change, and work internationally, with actors across multiple scales of governance and the private sector to find ways to live more sustainably, in order to avoid the catastrophic consequences of unrestrained global warming.

We also learn that the current status of efforts to protect the North and South Poles from the effects of global heating are complicated by today’s troubled geopolitical climate, which is leading to a growing competition for resources and jockeying for position among several nations. The likes of Russia, the US, UK, Canada, Norway, China and India are all seeking strategic influence and natural assets in the Arctic Region.

“The collateral damage to our relationship with Russia that’s come from the invasion of Ukraine is diminishing the opportunities for early-career scientists to work with their Russian counterparts on important scientific collaborations,” says Professor Dodds.

“Instead, Russia is turning eastwards to the likes of India and China. We will see more of this type of ‘Arctic science diplomacy’, with the danger that between North America and Europe versus Russia and the Asian Arctic our study of the region becomes disaggregated, split into two as a consequence of geopolitics.”

“But,” he adds, “we have to study the Arctic as a complex, integrated region which is in itself entangled with the wider Earth, so the idea that you separate this out makes literally no sense at all.”

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What technologies can we use and how can they help?

“People forget that when we talk about geopolitical and climate change, technology is absolutely integral to what we do in the here and now and what we might do in the future,” says Professor Dodds. “And the cold acts as a stimulus to technological and scientific innovation.”

For the Arctic and Antarctic the technological challenges include incomplete maps, extremely patchy communications coverage and, of course, severely disruptive weather. Nevertheless, GPS, internet and social media are becoming more common in the high north, while drones are being used by shipping operators to help them gain real-time intelligence about sea ice and weather conditions. Satellite coverage at the poles is also improving, which is integral to enhancing civilian-based science and understanding climate change.

Helen also includes a brief contribution from another expert, Sean Trevethan, the maritime lead in defence and investment at NATO HQ. Trevethan recently told Dr Sharman and the Royal Geographical Society’s Great Exhibition Road festival about advances in autonomous underwater drone vehicles (AUVs), whose Inertial Navigation System uses quantum sensor technology to ‘feel’ its path as it moves. The AUV can thus measure where it is going, making it well suited to longer missions in remote places, even allowing for sea currents.

Saab has recently had its own success with AUVs when two of its Sabertooth vehicles helped find Ernest Shackleton’s long-lost ship Endurance off the coast of the Antarctic. But again, geopolitics looms large with regard to the polar application of this technology.

“Underwater drone technology is a game-changer when it comes to infrastructural projects, but it’s also contributing to a growing awareness that, as the Arctic Ocean becomes a busier maritime environment, those technologies will also contribute to surveillance and domain awareness,” says Professor Dodds.

And geopolitics also intersects with other technologies that aim to improve Arctic communications, including lower altitude satellite networks, such as Elon Musk’s Starlink, and subsea communications cables in the Arctic Ocean. The recent mysterious sabotage of the subsea cable from Svalbard to mainland Norway shows that competition is obscuring our ability to carry out research for the greater good. As Professor Dodds puts it, “Science now has the tricky situation of becoming more politicised than scientists would wish.”

Hopeful signs for science

Yet Professor Dodds also sees hopeful signs for science in the potential of renewable polar energy, in particular the development of wind power, hydro power and geothermal power in the high north and Arctic regions. The Svalbard seed vault and the siting of Facebook’s server farm in northern Sweden are other examples of how polar-based technology can be used to benefit us.

However, he is most excited about the continuing findings on climate change that come from ice core research, something that was pioneered in Greenland as far back as the 1950s. Ice core research studies regional climate variability and compares and differentiates that variability from global climate signals.

“It’s a continuation of the work on how far one can one go back in time through an extracted ice core,” he says.

Whatever happens, both Professor Dodds and Helen are clear that polar issues are only going to become more important for our planet in the years ahead, so the development of new technologies that can both help to preserve polar resources and find sustainable ways to work with them are only going to become more vital in time to come.

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This podcast in Imperial College London and Saab’s Zero Pressure series is available on most podcast platforms including Spotify, Google and Apple.

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