for National Geographic News
Polar Power Play | Part Two of a Two-Part Series
Part One: "Arctic Oil Rush Sparks Battles Over Seafloor"
The prospect of vast oil and gas reserves beneath the Arctic Ocean has prompted countries to begin evaluating exploration options to assess what's really at stake.
By one estimate, 400 billion barrels of oil might lie beneath the Arctic seabed.
"The Arctic Commons area is many times larger than Iraq and could contain significant hydrocarbon reserves, with none of the attendant political risks" of the Middle East, the industry group United Oil and Gas Consortium Management Corporation asserts on its Web site.
But even as observers debate about who really owns the Arctic and will have rights to the potential cornucopia, other experts are warning that dangerous ice, extreme cold, and the risk of environmental catastrophe will pose serious barriers.
If the Price Is Right
Ice-related problems begin at the exploration stage. Typical seabed oil exploration involves towing an array of giant air guns behind a research vessel.
The guns make a loud noise that penetrates the ocean floor, allowing seismologists to measure the way sound travels and thus map underlying rock structures, including rocks that might trap pockets of fossil fuels.
Such exploration projects can be done efficiently in the Arctic today only in areas that are ice-free in the summer.
When ice is present, the air guns can be towed behind an icebreaker vessel, said Jim Swift, a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (see photos of exploring Arctic ice).
But often the icebreaker's wake is full of floating ice chunks that can impact the air guns.
"I'm glad it wasn't my equipment," said Swift, who has been on an icebreaker towing such an array. "It takes a lot of battering."
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