We moved out of the stone age not because the stones finished…

New Year… New Effort to Write!

It’s 2018, and I’m taking a bit of time to reflect on the last year, my achievements, and to think a bit more deeply about what I enjoyed most in 2017, what challenged me, and what really motivated me to ‘keep doing what I do’. I find January a questioning month, as the year stretches out ahead and I begin to plan for projects, events, and travel in the next 12 months.

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Image: Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (flickr.com)

After two relaxing weeks spent with my partner’s family, it has been a flying start. Last week I spent three days in Aberdeen taking part in a workshop as part of the SciBAr Installations Network. We were a very international group of academics from law, environmental science, social science, policy, and consultancy, backgrounds; all of us interested in the future of marine energy installations in the Arctic. As the three days unfolded, we discussed the potential impacts, opportunities, and wider consequences of Arctic energy development, and how science could support decision-making.

It is clear that the Arctic poses new challenges for all kinds of marine installation, including offshore renewable energy and floating nuclear (yes, you read that right!), as well fossil fuel extraction. The physical environment can be extreme, is changing rapidly, and can be challenging to predict – working on the H2020 Blue-Action project has driven this home for me. The risks posed by the Arctic environment must be considered across all phases of development, from exploration through to decommissioning, to ensure the safety of human life, assets, and the environment itself.

The latter was of particular concern for those of us with marine science backgrounds. Many parts of the Arctic are under-studied – it is a difficult, and expensive place for researchers to work. Consequently, much fundamental knowledge about the system is lacking. Programmes like the UK National Environment Research Council’s Changing Arctic Oceans programme are endeavouring to shed light on how the physical environment influences the Arctic ecosystem, while across The H2020 Arctic Cluster climate scientists are beginning to unpick the drivers of Arctic weather and climate to improve our ability to predict weather and climate in both the short and long term. All of these projects can help to establish an environmental baseline in the Arctic, against which we can assess potential impacts of marine installations, and any impacts which may, indeed, occur. With this in mind, we were left wondering whether the pace of research and establishment of environmental baselines could be outstripped by the desire for energy development – a worrying thought. Industry best practise may not stand up to operating in the Arctic environment, and will need to evolve to address its challenges – if development is to happen at all.

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View from the Sir Duncan Rice Library, University of Aberdeen, where the first SciBAr Installations Network workshop was held. Jan 10-12, 2018.

As an environmental scientist and a strong proponent of renewable energy, exploring the potential for renewables in the Arctic was an interesting exercise, particularly from a marine perspective. The resource is there, whether from the wind, the sun, or the tides, but the challenges for any structures offshore are substantial. In the case of wind, it was pointed out that there was no real reason to go offshore in the Arctic – the space on land exists and terrestrial developments could be substantially less expensive,  although constructing foundations atop thawing permafrost is not without challenge, either. Numerous tidal straits offer potential resource, but while designing devices to withstand ice is within the realm of possibility (some device developers have been successful), I’m not aware of any companies who have successfully operated through an Arctic winter – a challenge for those willing to take it up!

Finally, solar energy seems promising in the Arctic in the summer months, but presents a real challenge in the winter – this is perhaps where true integration of different renewable energy sources could be demonstrated. Floating solar energy farms are planned worldwide, and could be towed into place for the summer months – a sort of plug and play seasonal renewable power station. My inner ecologist immediately asks what the impacts would be, and whether there might be a threat of invasive species, or whether a floating solar farm might provide new shelter or habitat for marine species – but the potential for clean energy is appealing.

The allure of energy in and from the Arctic is strong, but in the case of fossil fuels it is imperative that we consider the impacts and consequences of exploiting that resource. There is a wider question about whether we should exploit fossil resources at all, as renewable energy technology accelerates in development and costs come down. The Arctic is an expensive and risky place to invest. One of the workshop participants summed the dilemma up perfectly: “we moved out of the Stone Age not because the stones finished, but because technology changed”.

I very nearly didn’t attend the SciBAr workshop, feeling the pressure of travelling for work and spending much time away from home (as I write this I am sitting on a plane to Italy for a project meeting). In hindsight I am thankful that I did. It reminded me of some of the topics that I love/would love to work on: the impacts of industrialisation of our oceans, understanding how science contributes to wider decision-making, blue growth, and the Arctic. I think it’s important sometimes to take time to do things and to contribute in ways that you enjoy, as well as carrying out the day-to-day. It might just re-invigorate your enthusiasm, get your creative juices going, and uncover some new opportunities for the future.

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