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07/25/2013

The global cost of Arctic melt? Most likely in trillions of dollars

Arctic

File photo of ice chunks floating in the Arctic Ocean near Barrow, Alaska. (AP photo)

We knew Arctic ice was rapidly melting but did not know its economic impact.

Now we do. A study published in the journal Nature pegs that cost at trillions of dollars, with the release of methane from thawing permafrost under the East Siberian Sea alone comes with an average global price tag of $60 trillion. That figure, say researchers, is comparable to the size of the world economy in 2012.

The authors of the paper have called it an economic timebomb.

The Arctic sea ice is declining at an unprecedented rate; it is also losing its thickness. Some scientists say the Arctic Ocean will be largely free of summer ice by 2020.

The fear is that as the ice melts, warming of the sea water will allow offshore permafrost to release greater quantities of methane. A giant reservoir of the greenhouse gas, in the form of gas hydrates on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, could be released, either slowly over the next 50 years or faster over a shorter time frame with catastrophic effect, say researchers.

Much of the cost of the melting Arctic will be borne by developing countries, say authors, “which already will face extreme weather, poorer health and lower agricultural production as Arctic warming affects climate. All nations will be affected, not just those in the far north, and all should be concerned about changes occurring in this region.”

The modelling that the authors used shows about 80 per cent of the impact will occur in the poorer economies of Africa, Asia and South America. The extra methane magnifies flooding of low-lying areas, extreme heat stress, droughts and storms.

Of course, the authors also talk about the economic discussion so far about the Arctic that assumes opening it up will be beneficial. The Arctic is thought to be home to 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 per cent of its undiscovered oil. Also, new polar shipping routes would increase regional trade.

Lloyd’s of London has estimated that investment in the Arctic could reach US$100 billion within 10 years.

Raveena Aulakh is the Toronto Star's environment reporter. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term, and wildlife. Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh

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