Tag Archives: Inuit

Jumping off the Edge into the Ocean: Hydrazine

Europe’s space agency is defending plans to launch two satellites that would drop a rocket stage likely to contain highly toxic fuel in some of the most ecologically sensitive waters of the Canadian Arctic… North Water Polynya between Baffin Island and Greenland Inuit have said those plans treat seas…as a garbage dump.

On October 13, 2017, the European Space Agency plans to launch the Sentinel 5P satellite, an environmental probe designed to monitor trace gases in the atmosphere. A second launch of a similar satellite is planned for 2018.  The second stage of both rockets are expected to splash down in water that is part of Canada’s exclusive economic zone.  Both will use Soviet-era rockets fuelled by hydrazine. The fuel is a carcinogen and causes convulsions, nervous system damage, kidney and liver failure in humans.

Hvistendahl, representative of European Space Agency, said unused fuel will be destroyed before it reaches the ocean. Re-entry temperatures are much higher than hydrazine’s boiling point, he said.  “The structural parts lose their integrity and, by melting, the destruction of the stage occurs. Six kilometres above ground the propellant components have completely burnt up.”

Michael Byers, a Canadian academic who has just published research on the launch in a top Arctic journal, questioned those assurances.  “The ESA is making lots of assumptions about what happens to the residual (fuel) in these returning rocket stages,” he said Friday in an email. “Unless they have real science that proves their assumptions, they should not be taking chances with Inuit lives and the Arctic environment.”  In his paper, published in Polar Record from Cambridge University, Byers cites extensive evidence suggesting that instead of burning, hydrazine forms fine droplets that settle on the Earth below.  Byers quotes a UN report that found “the products of combustion and non-combusted remains of fuel and oxidants falling from the height of 20–100 kilometre spread and land over thousands of square kilometres.”The rocket stage could be carrying up to a tonne of unused hydrazine as it falls, the paper says.  It will drop into the North Water Polynya, an 85,000-square-kilometre ocean that is free of ice year-round. It shelters most of the world’s narwhal, as well as about 14,000 beluga whales and 1,500 walrus, bowhead whales, polar bears, seals and tens of millions of seabirds…

In his paper, Byers points out there have been 10 such launches dropping rocket stages into the North Water Polynya over the last 15 years.  Nearly every country in the world, including Russia, has stopped using hydrazine. He said Europe launched a very similar satellite earlier this year with a rocket using a much safer fuel.

Excerpts from European satellite splashdown in Canadian Arctic probably toxic, Canadian Press, Oct. 6, 2017.

Inuit against the Greens: polar bears and climate change

polar bear skins. image from wikipedia

The Inuit see the animal as a fierce predator, a cultural symbol and a valuable source of food, warmth and money in a part of the world where all three are in short supply.Yet to animal-welfare and green groups in warmer places the polar bears are both an icon in the fight against climate change and an animal under threat of extinction. The melting of the Arctic’s ice cap, which the bears use as a hunting platform, means the estimated population of between 20,000 and 25,000 will decline sharply, they say. They see hunting the bears as an anachronism and want international trade in bear pelts and parts, already severely restricted, completely banned.

These opposing views are set to clash at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an intergovernmental agreement, between March 3rd and 14th in Bangkok. Having failed at the previous meeting of CITES in 2010, the United States is again leading a move to switch the polar bear from Appendix II of the convention to Appendix I, which would ban trade in all but “exceptional” circumstances. The American proposal is backed by Russia but opposed by Canada, Norway, Denmark (which represents Greenland) and the CITES secretariat.

The debate promises to be emotional. What it lacks are facts. The Americans acknowledge that only eight of the 19 known groups of polar bears have been surveyed since 2000. Of the remaining 11, four have never been surveyed. The submission relies on a controversial forecast undertaken for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 that suggests the decline in sea ice will lead to the disappearance of two-thirds of the world’s polar bears by 2050.  Should the United States obtain the two-thirds majority needed to change the bear’s status, it will be a blow to the Inuit. Their trade in walrus tusks and narwhal horns has dried up because of curbs on sales of ivory designed largely to protect elephants. The trade in seal pelts and meat was curtailed by a 2009 import ban by the European Union, though this granted a limited exemption to indigenous peoples.

In Canada polar bears are hunted under annual quotas set by territorial governments. The Inuit trade bear pelts, claws and teeth, and sell some of the quota to trophy hunters, who employ local guides and buy local supplies…..

Countries which want to become observers at the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body, will be reluctant to vote against Canada, Norway and Denmark on the issue. Canada takes over as chairman of the council in May. Still, it will take resolve to stand up to the United States, also a council member, and the array of animal-welfare and environmental groups backing its position.

The Inuit also argue that if the problem is climate change, to ban trade in polar bears is to attack the symptom rather than the cause. That was the argument of the European Union’s environment commissioner, Janez Potocnik, when the European Parliament debated the issue earlier this month. But the MEPs still voted in support of the American position.

Canada’s Inuit: Polar-bear politics, Economist, Feb. 23, at 36

Searching in the Dark, not anymore: Arctic Resources for indigenous Peoples

Royal Dutch Shell had spent $84m on offshore [oil] leases and had satisfied regulators. But it failed to win over the Inupiat, an Inuit group. They worried that icebreakers and drill ships would hurt the bowhead whales on which they depend. Their leaders and environmental groups sued American regulators for not following a 1970 law on environmental impacts. This allowed them to wrest a number of concessions from Shell, including a commitment to stop all offshore operations during the bowhead migration and hunt, should drilling ever proceed.

Much has been made about conflicts between Arctic states because of a retreating polar ice cap, which will make many natural resources accessible for the first time. But so far, the disputes have been of a different kind. Shell’s experience in Alaska is being repeated around the North Pole. And such clashes are bound to become even more common. Native groups claim much of the Arctic coast as their traditional territory (see map)—and are prepared to fight for their rights. In late February representatives of the Inuit met in Ottawa to discuss a common position on resource development in the High North.

In fact, countries surrounding the Arctic do not have much to argue over. The resources on land lie within clearly delineated borders and those under the sea—which include an estimated 83 billion barrels of oil, more than Russia’s proven reserves today—are largely in shallow waters within the uncontested jurisdiction of coastal states. “There is no race for Arctic resources, and no appetite for conflict,” says Michael Byers, author of the book “Who Owns the Arctic?” Instead of getting into a fight, he points out, Norway and Russia last year ended a decades-long dispute.

In contrast, potential for conflict with native groups is in rich supply. In particular the Inuit live in areas where natural resources are plentiful. And although they are only a small minority—an estimated 160,000 of them are spread across the Arctic—they have achieved a degree of power. Greenland, a territory of Denmark with a predominantly Inuit population, assumed self-rule in 2009, giving it control of its resources. Nunavut, a vast northern territory in Canada, was created a decade earlier by a settlement with the Inuit.

What is more, the Inuit are determined not to be bowled over. They have amplified their power by banding together in the Inuit Circumpolar Council, (ICC), a body created in 1977. They have used their membership of various United Nations bodies to compare notes with indigenous groups from around the world. They have teamed up with other Arctic dwellers such as the Sami of Scandinavia and the Dene of north-western Canada. And they have sought expert legal advice for their common position, which is due in May.

The Inuit are not against development, but want to ensure that it happens on their terms. This partly means sparing the environment—but it also means receiving their share. “For centuries the Arctic lands and waters have been exploited by everybody—except the Inuit. Now it’s our turn,” Kuupik Kleist, Greenland’s prime minister, said at a meeting in Ottawa. The territory is counting on offshore oil and gas to speed its way to independence. It allowed exploration to proceed last year when others were hanging back after the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico…

Excerpt, Arctic resources: Now it’s their turn, Economist, Mar. 5, 2011, at 68