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World

As Arctic Ice Melts, It's A Free-For-All For Oil ... And Tusks

Originally published on Tue April 23, 2013 10:47 am

It's widely known that the world's icecaps are melting. While most people are focused on what we're losing, some have considered what might be gained by the disappearance of all that ice.

In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey released a report estimating that 13 percent of the world's remaining undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the remaining undiscovered natural gas could be in the Arctic.

Amy Crawford, writing in this month's Smithsonian Magazine, says that Russia has already sent submarines deep into the Arctic Ocean to look for that oil and natural gas, and that China, too, wants a piece of the action.

"China obviously does not have any Arctic coastline," Crawford tells Weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden. "Their northern border is about 900 miles from the Arctic Circle. But they are seeking influence." That influence would come through Canada, one of their chief providers of oil. But so far, Russia has the upper hand.

"Russia is hoping that the U.N. will recognize its claim to a very large swath of territory right up to the North Pole itself," Crawford says. "So in 2007, they actually did this symbolic flag planting where they sent a formerly secret mini submarine down [to the seafloor] ... and they planted a titanium flag. So it sounds like something out of Christopher Columbus' playbook."

But petroleum products aren't the only commodities appearing where Arctic ice once was.

In Siberia, the tusks of long-dead mammoths, which have been encased in ice for centuries, are now becoming exposed. That's bringing along tusk hunters and ivory poachers.

"After the international ban of elephant ivory trade in 1991, mammoth tusk became sort of a substitute for [elephant ivory]," says photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva who grew up in a town in Siberia and heard about the rush of local men selling mammoth ivory. "So I would say from 1991, people really started to see it as a business."

There are millions of tusks out in the tundra. Many of them are buried very deep in the ice, but some are near the surface, and that's where local hunters are finding them. So Abrugaeva and writer Brook Larmer traveled to remote Yakutia, Russia, for a story about mammoth tusk hunting published in the April issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Larmer says that 90 percent of mammoth tusks end up in China, where they are often turned into mammoth trinkets. But the bigger tusks can be carved by master carvers in southern China and turned into art that can be worth $1 million or $1.5 million.

But the tusks aren't as plentiful as you might imagine. "[Tusk hunters] can go a whole summer and find only a couple hundred pounds worth of tusk, but those tusks are so valuable," Larmer says. The tusk seen in the image below? Larmer says it's "probably the finest specimen that was found last year. And that can be worth $80,000 to $100,000 or even more," when the hunters sell them in Yakutia.

But how do scientists feel about the tusk hunters, who could be seen as disturbing scientific data by taking the tusks away?

Larmer says some scientists lament the tusk hunting and trade. "Each of these tusks is kind of like a tree, which has rings," he says. "The tusks themselves can kind of carry information about the climate, the diet — that would be valuable data. On the other hand, if they find mammoth hair, or an intact mammoth, they're the first ones that tell the scientists."

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH")

AL GORE: Here is what's been happening year by year to the Columbia Glacier. It just retreats every single year.

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Anyone who caught the film, "An Inconvenient Truth," has seen this. The world's ice caps are melting. Most people are focused on what we're losing, but others have considered what might be gained by the disappearance of all that ice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: First, let's look at what might lie beneath that ice.

AMY CRAWFORD: The U.S. Geological Survey released a report in 2008 where they estimated that 13 percent of the world's remaining undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the remaining undiscovered natural gas could be in the Arctic.

LYDEN: That's reporter Amy Crawford. She wrote in this month's Smithsonian Magazine that Russia has already sent submarines deep into the Arctic Ocean looking for oil and natural gas, and China wants a piece of the action.

CRAWFORD: China, obviously, does not have any Arctic coastline. Their northern border is about 900 miles from the Arctic Circle. But they are seeking influence.

LYDEN: And that influence would come through Canada, one of their chief providers of oil. Next month, Canada will assume the chair of the Arctic Council, which you could consider the United Nations of the Arctic. So far, though, Russia has the upper hand.

CRAWFORD: Russia is hoping that the U.N. will recognize its claim to a very large swath of territory right up to the North Pole itself. So in 2007, they actually did this symbolic flag planting where they sent a formerly secret mini submarine down there.

LYDEN: On the ocean's bottom, they planted a flag?

CRAWFORD: Yeah, under the ocean floor. And they planted a titanium flag. So it sounds like, you know, something out of Christopher Columbus' playbook.

LYDEN: And here's another boon that could result from the melting ice shelf, the Northwest Passage. For centuries, explorers tried desperately to navigate that route along North America's border with the Arctic connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Again, reporter Amy Crawford.

CRAWFORD: The Northwest Passage became navigable for the first time in the summer of 2007. Navigable doesn't mean that it's totally free of ice. There's still icebergs. It's still fairly dangerous for an ordinary ship to pass through it.

LYDEN: But for China, the prospect of using a Northwest Passage for exports is becoming increasingly important.

CRAWFORD: It would be about 4,000 miles shorter than the route through the Panama Canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific. So that would clearly cut travel time by weeks.

LYDEN: And that means the question of who owns the Northwest Passage has once again come into play.

CRAWFORD: Canada says it's an internal waterway, but the U.S. says that this is an international route. So this dispute between the U.S. and Canada could become more heated as the route melts.

LYDEN: And we're not done with new enterprises appearing where ice once used to be. In Siberia, there are now mammoth tusk hunters. You heard me correctly. The tusks of long-dead wooly mammoths, encased in ice and permafrost for centuries, are now being revealed. And that means bounty hunters can legally take them.

Photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva grew up in a small town in Siberia and heard about the rush of local men to sell mammoth ivory.

EVGENIA ARBUGAEVA: After the international ban of elephant ivory trade in 1981, mammoth tusk became sort of a substitute for this material. So I would say from 1991, people started to really see it as a business.

LYDEN: Arbugaeva and writer Brook Larmer collaborated on a story for this month's edition of National Geographic magazine about the mammoth tusk boom. One picture shows a hunter half the size of an ancient tusk. The two traveled to remote Yakutia, Russia. Larmer spent a week just getting there from Beijing to a remote landscape.

BROOK LARMER: There are millions of tusks out in the tundra. Many of them are buried very deep into the ice, some are near the surface, which is what these local hunters are finding. Ninety percent of mammoth tusks end up in China where they are often turned into kind of mammoth trinkets and things, or these big pieces are carved by the master carvers in southern China and turned into objects of art that can be worth one or one and a half million dollars.

And these hunters, as they go out, they're not coming back with loads and loads and loads of tusks in their boats. They are - they can go a whole summer and find only a couple hundred pounds worth of tusks, but those tusks are so valuable. And the one that you see in the first shot, just that amazing tusk that's arching over more than twice the size of the tusk hunter underneath it, that is probably the finest specimen that was found last year. And that can be worth 80 to $100,000 or more, even at the point of sale up there in Yakutia.

LYDEN: And they're very fragile, right, the tusks? I mean, transporting them back has got to be difficult.

LARMER: It depends on how long they've been exposed to the air. The hunters take very good care of it not to expose them. But the ones that have been out on the beaches or that they find that have been exposed often disintegrate. And that's one of their arguments for why - what they do is not exploitative because they figure that they are actually rescuing some of these specimens that would otherwise just disintegrate and be lost forever.

LYDEN: How do scientists feel about the tusk hunters? Are they not, perhaps, disturbing scientific data by taking these tusks away?

LARMER: Well, there are some scientists that really lament the trade having kind of soaked up all of these tusks. Each of these tusks is kind of like a tree which has rings. The tusks themselves can carry information about the climate, the diet, and that would be valuable data. On the other hand, if they find mammoth with hair or actually an intact mammoth, they're the first ones that tell the scientists.

LYDEN: Yeah. I hadn't known, until I read your story, of these Asiatic peoples, the Yakut.

LARMER: There are several different indigenous people that live in eastern Siberia. They originally went up, kind of on these sleds across the ice, which is about a 30-, 40-mile crossing to the first island. Well, the ice would then melt, and they were standing on the islands looking for the tusks until the ice would freeze over in the fall and come back.

Now, most of them come back in September by boat, but these are small boats in very heavy seas. And what really brought the end of the mammoths was the warming climate. It reduced their grassland habitats, it flooded it over, some of the seas rose significantly and stranded many of these populations until they eventually went extinct.

And what's happening now is that as the climate also warms, you are finding these mammoth tusks starting to emerge. And the people that are there are following the same pathways, enduring the same brutal conditions, and they're pursuing the same beast, basically, as their forbearers 10,000 years ago. It's an extraordinarily difficult life, and it's probably one of the toughest occupations in the world.

LYDEN: That's writer Brook Larmer. Together, he and photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva produced the article "Of Mammoths and Men" to the April issue of National Geographic magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.