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Breaking the Ice: Mapping a Changing Arctic

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Mapping A Changing Arctic

A Changing Arctic

Breaking the Ice: Mapping a Changing Arctic

The Arctic is changing. As retreating ice cover makes this region more accessible, nations with Arctic real estate are thinking of developing these subzero landscapes and the resources below.

As the Arctic evolves, a vast amount of resources will become more accessible and longer shipping seasons will improve Arctic logistics. But with a changing climate and increased public pressure to limit resource development in environmentally sensitive regions, the future of northern economic activity is far from certain.

This week’s Chart of the Week shows the location of major oil and gas fields in the Arctic and the possible new trade routes through this frontier.

A Final Frontier for Undiscovered Resources?

Underneath the Arctic Circle lies massive oil and natural gas formations. The United States Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic contains approximately 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil resources and about 30% of its undiscovered natural gas resources.

So far, most exploration in the Arctic has occurred on land. This work produced the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field in Alaska, the Tazovskoye Field in Russia, and hundreds of smaller fields, many of which are on Alaska’s North Slope, an area now under environmental protection.

Land accounts for about 1/3 of the Arctic’s area and is thought to hold about 16% of the Arctic’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas resources. A further 1/3 of the Arctic area is comprised of offshore continental shelves, which are thought to contain enormous amounts of resources but remain largely unexplored by geologists.

The remaining 1/3 of the Arctic is deep ocean waters measuring thousands of feet in depth.

The Arctic circle is about the same geographic size as the African continent─about 6% of Earth’s surface area─yet it holds an estimated 22% of Earth’s oil and natural gas resources. This paints a target on the Arctic for exploration and development, especially with shorter seasons of ice coverage improving ocean access.

Thawing Ice Cover: Improved Ocean Access, New Trading Routes

As Arctic ice melts, sea routes will stay navigable for longer periods, which could drastically change international trade and shipping. September ice coverage has decreased by more than 25% since 1979, although the area within the Arctic Circle is still almost entirely covered with ice from November to July.

RouteLengthIce-free Time
Northern Sea Route4,740 Nautical Miles6 weeks of open waters
Transpolar Sea Route4,179 Nautical Miles2 weeks of open waters
Northwest Passage5,225 Nautical MilesPeriodically ice-free
Arctic Bridge3,600 Nautical MilesIce-free

Typically shipping to Japan from Rotterdam would use the Suez Canal and take about 30 days, whereas a route from New York would use the Panama Canal and take about 25 days.

But if the Europe-Asia trip used the Northern Sea Route along the northern coast of Russia, the trip would last 18 days and the distance would shrink from ~11,500 nautical miles to ~6,900 nautical miles. For the U.S.-Asia trip through the Northwest Passage, it would take 21 days, rather than 25.

Control of these routes could bring significant advantages to countries and corporations looking for a competitive edge.

Competing Interests: Arctic Neighbors

Eight countries lay claim to land that lies within the Arctic Circle: Canada, Denmark (through its administration of Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.

There is no consistent agreement among these nations regarding the claims to oil and gas beneath the Arctic Ocean seafloor. However, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides each country an exclusive economic zone extending 200 miles out from its shoreline and up to 350 miles, under certain geological conditions.

Uncertain geology and politics has led to overlapping territorial disputes over how each nation defines and maps its claims based on the edge of continental margins. For example, Russia claims that their continental margin follows the Lomonosov Ridge all the way to the North Pole. In another, both the U.S. and Canada claim a portion of the Beaufort Sea, which is thought to contain significant oil and natural gas resources.

To Develop or Not to Develop

Just because the resources are there does not mean humans have to exploit them, especially given oil’s environmental impacts. Canada’s federal government has already returned security deposits that oil majors had paid to drill in Canadian Arctic waters, which are currently off limits until at least 2021.

In total, the Government of Canada returned US$327 million worth of security deposits, or 25% of the money oil companies pledged to spend on exploration in the Beaufort Sea. In addition, Goldman Sachs announced that it would not finance any projects in the U.S.’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The retreat of Western economic interests in the Arctic may leave the region to Russia and China, countries with less strict environmental regulations.

Russia has launched an ambitious plan to remilitarize the Arctic. Specifically, Russia is searching for evidence to prove its territorial claims to additional portions of the Arctic, so that it can move its Arctic borderline — which currently measures over 14,000 miles in length — further north.

In a changing Arctic, this potentially resource-rich region could become another venue for geopolitical tensions, again testing whether humans can be proper stewards of the natural world.

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Urbanization

Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth

The amount of human-made (or anthropogenic) mass, has now exceeded the weight of all life on Earth, including humans, animals, and plants.

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Human-Made Mass

Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth

The world is not getting any bigger but the human population continues to grow, consuming more and more resources and altering the very environment we rely on.

In 2020, the amount of human-made mass, or anthropogenic mass, exceeded for the first time the dry weight (except for water and fluids) of all life on Earth, including humans, animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms.

In this infographic based on a study published in Nature, we break down the composition of all human-made materials and the rate of their production.

A Man-made Planet

Anthropogenic mass is defined as the mass embedded in inanimate solid objects made by humans that have not been demolished or taken out of service—which is separately defined as anthropogenic mass waste.

Over the past century or so, human-made mass has increased rapidly, doubling approximately every 20 years. The collective mass of these materials has gone from 3% of the world’s biomass in 1900 to being on par with it today.

While we often overlook the presence of raw materials, they are what make the modern economy possible. To build roads, houses, buildings, printer paper, coffee mugs, computers, and all other human-made things, it requires billions of tons of fossil fuels, metals and minerals, wood, and agricultural products.

Human-Made Mass

Every year, we extract almost 90 billion tons of raw materials from the Earth. A single smartphone, for example, can carry roughly 80% of the stable elements on the periodic table.

The rate of accumulation for anthropogenic mass has now reached 30 gigatons (Gt)—equivalent to 30 billion metric tons—per year, based on the average for the past five years. This corresponds to each person on the globe producing more than his or her body weight in anthropogenic mass every week.

At the top of the list is concrete. Used for building and infrastructure, concrete is the second most used substance in the world, after water.

Human-Made MassDescription1900 (mass/Gt)1940 (mass/Gt)1980 (mass/Gt)2020 (mass/Gt)
ConcreteUsed for building and infrastructure, including cement, gravel and sand21086549
AggregatesGravel and sand, mainly used as bedding for roads and buildings1730135386
BricksMostly composed of clay and used for constructions11162892
AsphaltBitumen, gravel and sand, used mainly for road construction/pavement 012265
MetalsMostly iron/steel, aluminum and copper131339
OtherSolid wood products, paper/paperboard, container and flat glass and plastic461123

Bricks and aggregates like gravel and sand also represent a big part of human-made mass.

Although small compared to other materials in our list, the mass of plastic we’ve made is greater than the overall mass of all terrestrial and marine animals combined.

Human-Made Mass Plastic

As the rate of growth of human-made mass continues to accelerate, it could become triple the total amount of global living biomass by 2040.

Can We Work It Out?

While the mass of humans is only about 0.01% of all biomass, our impact is like no other form of life on Earth. We are one of the few species that can alter the environment to the point of affecting all life.

At the current pace, the reserves of some materials like fossil fuels and minerals could run out in less than 100 years. As a result, prospectors are widening their search as they seek fresh sources of raw materials, exploring places like the Arctic, the deep sea, and even asteroids.

As the world population continues to increase, so does the pressure on the natural environment. It is an unavoidable fact that consumption will increase, but in an era of net-zero policies and carbon credits, accounting for the human impact on the environment will be more important than ever.

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Electrification

The Biggest Mining Companies in the World in 2021

The graphic takes a look at the world’s largest mining companies by market capitalization and the metals they produce.

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The Biggest Mining Companies in the World in 2021

Ranked: The Top 20 Mining Companies

Mining companies have emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic in excellent financial and operational shape and the forecast is even brighter as the economy recovers.

The market is expected to reach a value of nearly $1.86 trillion by 2022, with the increasing demand for minerals for power generation and renewables technology.

In the graphic above, we show the world’s top companies by market capitalization as of June 22, 2021, and the metals they mine.

The Bottom Line: From Smartphones to Food

From roads, hospitals, automobiles, houses, computers, satellites, and even fertilizer for crops, mining provides many of the materials we interact with every day. Copper, iron, rare earth metals, aluminum, and phosphate are just a handful of the mined materials that make modern life and feed the bottom line for mining companies.

The two biggest by market capitalization, BHP ($179B) and Rio Tinto ($132B), both produce a range of commodities, mainly iron ore and copper. The next on the list is also the biggest company in Brazil, Vale ($112B). The miner is the world’s largest producer of iron ore and pellets (small balls of iron ore) used to manufacture steel.

CompanyMarket Cap (USD)Country Main Mining Activity
BHP$179B🇦🇺 Australia iron ore, copper, coal
Rio Tinto$132B🇦🇺 Australia iron ore, aluminum, copper
Vale$112B🇧🇷 Braziliron ore, nickel
Glencore$55B🇨🇭 Switzerlandcopper, cobalt, zinc, nickel
Norilsk Nickel$54B🇷🇺 Russiapalladium, nickel
Freeport-McMoRan$52B🇺🇸 United Statescopper
Anglo American$52B🇬🇧 United Kingdomdiamonds, copper, platinum, iron ore, coal
Fortescue Metals$51B🇦🇺 Australia iron ore
Newmont Goldcorp$50B🇺🇸 United Statesgold
Southern Copper$47B🇺🇸 United Statescopper
Zijin Mining Group$38B🇨🇳 Chinagold, copper
Barrick Gold$37B🇨🇦 Canadagold
Nutrien$34B🇨🇦 Canadapotash
Anglo American Platinum$28B🇿🇦 South Africaplatinum, palladium, rhodium
Franco-Nevada$28B🇨🇦 Canadagold
Polyus $27B🇷🇺 Russiagold
Ganfeng Lithium$24B🇨🇳 Chinalithium
Wheaton Precious Metals$20B🇨🇦 Canadagold, silver, palladium, cobalt
Antofagasta $19B🇬🇧 United Kingdomcopper
Ma’aden$18B🇸🇦 Saudi Arabiagold

A $57 billion gap separates the top 3 from the rest of the group. In fourth place comes Glencore ($55B) with its mixed operations of trading and mining metals, agricultural products, and oil and gas.

The automotive industry is a big consumer of metals, which explains Norilsk Nickel’s ($54B) fifth place. The company, owned by the wealthiest man in Russia, is the world’s biggest producer of palladium, used in vehicles’ catalytic converters.

Miners also serve the luxury market, with precious metals like gold, silver, and gemstones. Number six on the list, Anglo American ($52B) is one of the world’s leading diamond companies.

In terms of countries, Canada leads the ranking with 4 miners on the list. The United States and Australia come next with 3 companies each.

Charging and Changing the Future of Mining Companies

The United States, Europe, and Asia are making big investments in electrification and power generation. By 2024, almost 33% of the world’s electricity is forecast to come from renewables.

This shift from fossil fuels will require a lot of copper, cobalt, and lithium for batteries. Mining companies are in a position to capitalize as the market expands.

For example, no. 17 in the list, China’s Ganfeng Lithium, the world’s third-largest producer of lithium chemicals for batteries, saw its market capitalization grow more than 25% in 2021.

The energy transition is just beginning, and the materials used in building a more sustainable future will also build up the largest mining companies of tomorrow.

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