Last week, as China’s icebreaker, the Xuelong (“Snow Dragon”) set sail from the port of Qingdao, heading for the Arctic with an international crew on board, Greenpeace’s ship, the Arctic Sunrise, a Greenpeace vessel, set sail from the US for the Arctic. The Arctic Sunrise has an international crew, including well-known Chinese singer, Hu Haiquan, part of the singing duo, Yu Quan.
According to media reports, the Xuelong is expected to be away for more than three months on scientific research, monitoring the impacts of climate change as well as documenting impacts to Arctic ecosystems. Meanwhile Greenpeace will monitor the operations of giant oil company Shell, off the coasts of Alaska, as well as start a month-long scientific expedition around Greenland and the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.
Of the two long voyages, perhaps the Arctic Sunrise will have a better shipboard choir thanks to Hu, on board, but both voyages have important and overlapping interests in the future of the Arctic.
Along with many other nations, China’s interest in Arctic affairs appears to be growing. Chinese experts are described by some as increasingly “acute observers of the region.” This interest may be linked to threats to the Arctic from climate change, as well as the potential for exploration and extraction of resources and the development of new shipping lanes.
According to the US Geological Survey, the Arctic is estimated to hold 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered, and technically recoverable, oil and gas resources.
Yet the Arctic is also home to many magnificent creatures, all bound up into an ecosystem that is completely dependent on the glaciers, sea ice and low temperatures. As the Arctic warms this ecosystem is facing a terrible threat, along with some remarkable wildlife: polar bears, Arctic foxes and the “unicorn of the sea,” narwhal whales, found nowhere else on Earth.
This stunning part of the world also plays a critical role in regulating the global climate.
It’s the world’s refrigerator, keeping us cool by reflecting the sun’s energy off its icy surface. But, as the ice melts, it accelerates global warming, threatening lives and livelihoods on every continent.
According to Dr. Axel Schweiger from Polar Science Centre, in the last 30 years it is likely that we have lost as much as 75 percent of Arctic sea ice volume. Just last year, the Arctic Sunrise itself encountered the second lowest level of sea-ice in recorded history.
The melting sea-ice has made it easier for companies to enter the previously impenetrable ice fortress and thereby exploit the region. The resulting extraction of energy resources will not only further contribute to climate threats, it will also bring with it threats of oil spills, pollution, invasive species, over-fishing and habitat damage. It's with some irony that the companies’ planning to drill will do so in the name of the very fuels causing the melting in the first place.
China, like every nation, will be deeply impacted by changes in the Arctic. The Arctic has a direct influence on China’s weather and climate, and, as a result, its agricultural systems that must feed 1.3 billion people.
Yang Jian, vice-president of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, stated the issues of climate change, Arctic melting and environmental pollution span continents and cannot be solved by a single country or region alone. Instead, solving them requires nations to work together in a “spirit of cooperation, with the public good uppermost in mind”.
The unique and vulnerable ecosystems of the Arctic need such international cooperation including a new agreement that creates a global sanctuary in the uninhabited area around the North Pole and a ban on oil drilling and unsustainable fishing in Arctic waters.
Perhaps the Xuelong and the Arctic Sunrise will pass close by each other over the next few months in the Arctic, with both crews working for greater scientific understanding of the Arctic and the threats that arise from exploitation of the region. As singer and crew member Haiquan has said, "This precious place should not be invaded by oil drilling or other commercial activities. It belongs to everyone on the Earth."