2007 is the year the Northwest Passage became navigable for the first time since records began; the year scientists predicted that arctic waters could be ice-free in summer within five or six years; the year the political temperature began rising over arctic resources ownership. What do the next five years hold for us?
Much is being made of the Mayan prediction concerning the end of the present age, due to fall in our Western year of 2012, on the 21st of December. It also happens that on the same day (some sources say at precisely 11.11am GMT), our sun’s path will visually intersect the Milky Way’s galactic centre-line — something it does only once every 25,920 years. This transit is considered by many with a belief in astrology to be a highly significant event. Some religious followers of various faiths also see it as presaging a time of great change. Hollywood, inevitably, is gearing itself up for a 2012 Doomsday FilmFest. As I write, there are 1,819 days to go.
The Maya, a civilization that flourished in what is now Belize, Guatamala, Honduras, El Salvador and part of Mexico in central America from around 1,800BC to about the 9th century AD, when they went into a mysterious decline. They were the first in the area to develop a system of written language. They were also very sophisticated mathematicians and astronomers. They developed a complex and accurate Long Count Calendar capable of measuring the passage of astronomical time in huge chunks — in far greater detail than might be expected from a civilization that had no telescopes to aid their nightly observations — and it’s this calendar which has set modern-day researchers all a-quiver, for it indicates that the current age in which we live will end on 21st December 2012 — the Winter Solstice, and also the day of the great and rare galactic transition.
The Maya came to understand that the events they observed wheeling above them in the stellar sky occurred in cycles as vast as 26,000 years. The civilization itself, however, only existed in sophisticated form for some 3,000 years, and this astronomical long-sightedness can be a mystery to some in this day and age. People wonder: if they could only base their calculations on celestial phenomena observed by eye and in real time, how could they possibly have known that such a vastly long astronomical cycle even existed, much less accurately identify its beginning and forecast its end?
It’s because they grasped the significance of an astronomical phenomenon called Precession, caused by the wobble of the Earth on its axis, a process that takes almost 26,000 years to complete one cycle. It would take too long to explain it in detail here, but I’ve no need to — Roderick Marling’s already provided an excellent explanation at 2012: The Astronomy Connection. Suffice to say that the Mayan astronomers would have noticed, over periods of 70 years at a time, how sunrise on the equinoxes shifted one full degree from its previous starting point, and from this they would have been able to extrapolate a complete Precessional cycle amounting to nearly 26,000 years.
This Long Count, or Great Year, was also known to the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the ancient Greeks. What the Maya did for us with their way of figuring it out was to give it a start point and an end point, knowledge the other civilizations somehow managed to lose. And it’s probably worth pointing out that when the Maya were working all this out, the countries of Europe were still languishing in the Dark Ages.
I’m not here to warn you that the world as we know it will suddenly explode or implode or disappear altogether in an almighty celestial impact on that fateful day in December 2012. Indeed, that’s not necessarily what the Maya were doggedly transmitting to us down through the centuries with their Long Count Calendar. They were as much concerned with mapping the beginning of the next age as they were with acknowledging the end of the previous one — and their world view was very much steeped in matters spiritual rather than temporal. Nonetheless, some people today might consider it more than purely coincidental that global events seem to be converging in a manner threatening to culminate in a dangerous mix that could turn highly explosive just at that ill-starred time.
On 12th December 2007, BBC News Online reported that northern polar waters could be ice-free in summers within just 5-6 years. This news came from professor Wieslaw Maslowski in an address to the American Geophysical Union. He said that previous projections had underestimated the processes now driving ice loss.
In 1980, the summer sea-ice cover extended to 7.8 million square kilometres. By 2007, this had shrunk to just 4.2 million square kilometres. Professor Maslowski’s calculations incorporate more realistic representations of the way warm water is moving into the Arctic basin from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans — figures which have been omitted from previous forecast models.
This sea-ice shrinkage has had a profound effect on the Northwest Passage. On 14th September 2007, BBC News Online reported that for the first time since records had begun to be kept in 1978, the European Space Agency’s data showed that this fabled short cut from Europe to Asia through the Canadian Arctic was ice-free and navigable.
The opening of the sea routes is already leading to international disputes, said the BBC. Canada says it has full rights over those parts of the Northwest Passage that pass through its territory and that it can bar transit there. But this has been disputed by the US and the European Union. They argue that the new route should be an international strait that any vessel can use.
Just a few weeks earlier, on 1st August 2007, BBC News Online reported that Russia had planted a flag on the sea-bed under the North Pole as an assertion of its rights to claim large areas of the Arctic Ocean as its own. It wants to be able to drill for what may turn out to be enormous oil reserves under there. The BBC said that other states are acting to protect their interests in the Arctic. Canada is planning to build up to eight new patrol ships and the US Congress is considering a proposal to build two new heavy polar ships. It also reported that the US and Canada [are arguing] over rights in the North-west Passage, Norway and Russia differ over the Barents Sea, Canada and Denmark are competing over a small island off Greenland, the Russian parliament is refusing to ratify an agreement with the US over the Bering Sea and Denmark is claiming the North Pole itself.
The global demand for oil is still increasing at an alarming rate. We may already have passed Peak Oil — the point in time at which the maximum global petroleum production rate is reached, after which the rate of production enters its terminal decline — but this won’t stop desperate energy-hungry countries from exploring — and exploiting — areas where vast new oil fields lie waiting to be discovered. Ironically, thinning ice cover will make it easier and cheaper to extract the stuff, so let’s hope they don’t use that as an excuse to water down their anti-global warming efforts.
The bickering over who owns what has already started. It’s to be hoped that our world governments can resist the urge to flex their military muscles over these issues as December 2012 approaches.
Read my Climate Change posts in chronological order by using the Climate Change Log.