The big melt: how long do we have until the collapse of the Arctic sea ice?

Arctic Live presenter Simon Reeve ponders the possibility of the largest change on the surface of our planet that humans have ever seen

Coming from our small island, it can be hard to grasp enormity. The scale of the ice sheet took my breath away. It is seven times the size of the UK. I felt awed, overwhelmed by the sight, but also by the sense that this is Mother Nature’s secret weapon: a potent store of water that will drown vast areas of human civilisation if we continue to heat the planet.

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I was troubled by my flight above the ice sheet, but many others see the warming Arctic as an opportunity. Melting is opening more of the Arctic to exploration and exploitation.

Mining firms will be able to extract valuable minerals as temperatures rise, ice melts and new areas of the Arctic can be mapped and explored by geologists.

In Greenland I travelled to the edge of the small town of Narsaq in the south of the country to visit a site some hope will be turned into a vast mine for rare earth minerals. They’re in high demand for the manufacture of everything from smart phones to electric cars.

As an icy wind whipped around, I chatted with Ib Laursen, who works for the Australian mining company that will need to dig out vast quantities of rock to get at the precious minerals. 

“The plan is to move three million tonnes a year for the next 37 years,” he told me. But along with the minerals is uranium, and many locals fear there will be contamination.

The scale of mining planned for Greenland is huge, but it’s dwarfed by projects in Russia. The world’s largest natural gas reserves have been discovered off its Arctic coast. Gas money is flooding into boom towns such as the remote settlement of Salekhard. When I visited, a cathedral, houses, shops and offices were all under construction, and there was a 60m-high restaurant shaped like a gas torch on top of a public bridge.

Most people living in the frozen North are Russian. The country has half the Arctic coastline, and is the dominant power in the Arctic. Perhaps understandably, Russia thinks it has a moral and legal right to its riches.

Russia has most to gain should the ice melt. Apart from drilling for yet more fossil fuels, Russia is already encouraging the so-called Northern Sea Route, which would mean ships could travel from Europe to Asia along the once frozen coast of northern Russia, reaching a port in China, say, days faster than if they had travelled through the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and across the Indian Ocean. How ironic that our collective response to the Arctic melting is to look for more fossil fuels to burn, and new ways to ship them around the planet.

It was scientists from the American space agency Nasa who made me realise what’s ultimately at stake. On the west coast of Greenland I met a Nasa team dropping probes into the sea around the island to study the rate of melting.

“We’re definitely heating up the planet,” said Josh Willis, a climate scientist from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, emphatically. “We’re driving sea levels higher and higher. We’re melting ice sheets and glaciers all across the world. And we’re fundamentally changing the climate of the only planet we currently have to live on.”

If you’re wondering what on earth Nasa is doing in Greenland, the remit of the space agency includes monitoring Earth’s vital signs. Nasa knows that what happens in the Arctic is critical to the health of our entire world, and will affect us all.

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Arctic Live is on for three nights from tonight at 8pm on BBC2