In less than two weeks, Royal Dutch Shell will enter the pristine waters of the Arctic in search for oil. If successful, it will ignite one of the most destructive resource races of our time.
One of the last great wildernesses left on earth, the Arctic's future now hangs in the balance.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, around a quarter of the planet's untapped energy resources lie at the top of our world.
By the end of this decade, the IMF forecasts that oil prices will double to breach the $200 mark. In an era of dwindling natural resources, the Arctic represents an economic gold mine.
The potential bounty has sparked off a land grab with the U.S., Canada, Russia, Denmark and Norway all vying for territorial claims. According to the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions, Arctic states are gearing up for a new "Great Game" as they build up their military capabilities in the region.
Four years ago, Moscow announced that "our first and main task is to turn the Arctic into Russia's resource base for the 21st century." It's relying on a strike there in order to maintain its status as the world's largest oil producer.
Earlier this year, Moscow signed a deal with BP. It's now courting other oil majors that are lining up to join Shell in the Arctic. Their success depends on a huge oil strike that can offset the billions of dollars it costs to explore in these hostile waters.
The Arctic is notorious for its extreme cold, long months of darkness and hurricane-strength winds. It's also covered by thick ice for most of the year.
But, global warming has made things easier -- the summer sea ice is now the lowest on record. It's a cruel irony that oil companies are benefiting from the very warming which they have helped to create.
And temperatures in the Arctic are rising faster than anywhere else on earth. According to NASA, since the 1950s the region has warmed by 1.5C -- that's twice the global average.
This is devastating not only for the polar bears that live there, but for our entire world as ice at the top of the planet reflects much of the sun's heat back into space. Less ice at the poles will only accelerate the pace of warming, which according to the world's top scientists, is now nearing a catastrophic tipping point.
The International Energy Agency says that if we continue burning fossil fuels at our current pace, the world may suffer a 6C temperature rise by the end of this century -- this will mark the end of most life on earth. Moreover, our opportunity to remedy to this grave problem is "closing" -- we have but five years.
In the words of Sir Paul McCartney: "It seems madness that we are willing to go to the ends of the planet to find the last drops of oil when our best scientific minds are telling us we need to get off fossil fuels to give our children a future."
Shell's Arctic ambitions have sparked off an intense environmental debate in the U.S. People are not only concerned about global warming, but by the more immediate threat of an oil spill. In the words of Chuck Clusen from the Natural Resources Defense Council, it could "invite a disaster of epic proportions."
One need only remember the Exxon Valdez spill of the 1980s to realize that oil does not break down in such icy conditions. Twenty years later, it still remains trapped beneath the shore around the coast of Alaska.
An oil spill would also spell doom for the region's indigenous people. In the words of Edward Itta, who has been one of Shell's most vocal opponents: "We consider both the sea and the land and the Inupiat Eskimos to be one. Therefore, the fate of the ocean is our fate."
According to independent researchers Sintef: "Today, no proven operational system exists for detecting an oil spill covered by snow and/or ice or hidden under beach sediments."
In a bid to stop Shell's controversial drilling plans, Greenpeace has launched one its largest campaigns ever. It has joined forces with more than 100 celebrities to call for a U.N. resolution to create a global sanctuary around the pole to protect it from mining and fishing.
Such a treaty protects its southern sister, the Antarctic. If a similar accord does not come into place in the great north, the Arctic's unique ecosystem and much of its wildlife may soon be lost in a destructive tide of irreversible change. In the words of Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace's executive director: "The Arctic needs people from around the world to stand up and demand action to protect it."
"At some time, in some place, we need to take a stand. I believe that time is now and that place is the Arctic," McCartney says. And he's right -- it's time for us rise to this great challenge and protect the planet that gives us home, for "the wild places are where we began. When they end, so do we."
In the words of Thomas Jefferson: "Every generation needs a new revolution." With five years left on the clock, saving planet earth must be ours: "What lies behind us, and before us is nothing compared to what lies within us" -- this could be our finest hour.
You can sign Greenpeace's petition to 'Save the Arctic' here
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