OPINION: Welcome to the Arctic -- check your assumptions at the door
November 9th, 2012 | Carey Restino
Shell pulled out of the Arctic last week after a challenging first season in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. News reports across the nation touted the frustrations of this first attempt to drill there since the '80s, ranging from stubborn sea ice that stayed longer than expected to delays in the construction and certification of a spill containment barge essential for drilling deep enough to hit hydrocarbons. As the ships and drill rigs left Oct. 31, two 1,500-foot exploratory wells, one in each sea, had been dug, though neither could be dug deep enough to touch gas, since the barge was delayed. That's a far cry from the five wells Shell had planned to dig this season. The company said the work it did complete will set the stage for a successful 2013 drilling season, and while one can assume some of the problems, like the containment barge, will be fixed, others, like the weather, are likely to continue to be a problem for any company intent on increasing its Arctic presence.
The sea ice movement this year is a perfect example — it left late, but then receded to record-setting levels. More recently, however, the ice appears to have returned earlier than expected in many areas of the Arctic. According to a report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, after a record minimum ice extent from Sept. 16 through Oct. 31, the Arctic has gained 1.62 million square miles of ice, doubling during the month of October. But, the areas where ice hung in so late in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas did not see rapid ice growth like other areas of the Arctic, and large sections of these seas were still ice-free as of the first week in November. The rapid sea ice growth was seen in the East Siberian and Laptev seas, exceeding an incredible 11,000 and 7,000 square miles per day, respectively. While this new ice is not the same as multi-year sea ice, it can still create significant problems for those exploring the north. If anything is to be learned from this year's close scrutiny of ice patterns, it is that predicting ice movement is about as simple as getting toddlers to sit still during a classical music concert.
Add to that recent news that the sea currents are no longer being dominated by the La Nina phenomenon — a band of cold water stretching across the Pacific Ocean impacting global climate and weather — but have been replaced by La Nada — an absence of a defined jet stream compared by some climatologists as acting "like an unruly teenager."
"This is one of the most challenging outlooks we've produced in recent years because El Nino decided not to show up as expected," said Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center. "In fact, it stalled out last month, leaving neutral conditions in place in the tropical Pacific."
Of course, we don't have to do much more than look outside for indications of weird weather phenomenon. Winter came to my doorstep a full two weeks before it usually does, after a month of crazy wind storms, while many areas in the Arctic saw tremendous rainfalls this fall. What the winter has to hold, who knows?
Setting aside the weather for just a minute, Shell's operations encountered several unexpected glitches this fall, ranging from difficulties flying helicopters in freezing temperatures to a crane that wasn't performing up to snuff on one of its drill rigs. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the company now plans to use heated rotors to deal with the difficulties of flying thousands of people across the sea to its drill rigs in icy fog, and the crane is being taken off line at certain temperatures so it won't malfunction. It's all a learning experience, Shell said, and such lessons are expected. All in all, things went pretty well, it notes — no serious injuries, no big mess-ups, and progress made.
But this canary operation demonstrates a thing or two about operating in the Arctic. As the world ventures into this area in record numbers, it will not only face the uncertainty of doing business and traveling through an area with unique conditions, it will face the added uncertainty of weather that on many levels refuses to cooperate with predictions and scenarios that long-term operations rely so heavily on.
What can help ease this crunch of ignorance combined with randomness? Maybe more science? Maybe more people watching and ready to respond? Perhaps most of all, what is needed is an understanding of the inherent risks involved in doing anything in the Arctic, both at a government and a corporate level. Because if 2012 has taught us anything, it is that assumptions and aggressive action will almost certainly backfire in this arena.