The dazzling, delicate Top of the World is ground zero for climate change: shielding it from harm is the defining challenge of our time. As ice cover declines, and a new Ocean emerges, we must unite to prevent even more harm to the Arctic from oil and gas drilling, commercial fishing and new threats posed by shipping interests.
Oil and gas companies profiting from the melting ice is too cruel an irony, and too great a risk for the future of our planet. It is our duty to keep the Arctic safe: there must be no drilling anywhere in the Arctic, no commercial fishing at its centre and shipping must be strictly regulated to ensure minimal harm to the biodiversity of the region.
- We are witnessing the birth of a new Ocean at the top of the world as Arctic ice melts.
- The Ocean occupies nearly two-thirds of Arctic territory.
- Arctic sea ice – sometimes called the planet’s air conditioner – plays an important role in regulating the global climate. The bright white surface of the sea ice reflects roughly 80% of the sunlight that strikes it back into space, which keeps the region cool. By comparison, the dark Ocean surface absorbs 90 % of the sunlight.
- The sea ice provides important habitat for seals, walruses and polar bears on top of the ice, and for plankton production and plankton-eating fish that live beneath the ice.
- The Arctic is a critical habitat for endangered and threatened species which are already stressed from the effects of climate change, such as polar bears, whales, seals, and migratory birds.
- Despite its ecological importance and vulnerability, the Arctic marine environment remains one of the least protected and vulnerable places on Earth.
- The melting Arctic ice has made the region’s oil, gas and minerals more accessible, opened up new shipping routes and expanded commercial fishing. It has triggered global interest – and competitiveness – in the region from Arctic nations and those far outside its boundaries that see opportunity knocking. All activities could negatively impact this fragile environment.
- Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic does not have a single overarching treaty. The legal instruments that currently govern the region are not coherent and do not take into account the cumulative impacts of different activities in the region.
- The Arctic Council, which is the key body responsible for managing the Arctic, is not a legal entity, only makes non-binding, voluntary recommendations and lacks enforcement mechanisms. For it to remain relevant in the future it will need to move from being a policy-shaping forum to having a much greater role in policy making.
- Finland is currently chairing the Arctic Council (2017-2019).
- WWF released a scorecard on how well Arctic Council countries have been implementing their commitments relating to biodiversity and conservation. As might be expected there were no straight “A” students. While some countries have been making progress, national implementation has generally been poor. This scorecard will be updated every 2 years.
- The Arctic is ground zero for climate change.
- Arctic sea ice cover is declining by about 4% per decade, and predictions have said that the Arctic could have completely ice- free Summers by 2050, and possibly even sooner.
- In 2016, scientists recorded unprecedented Arctic warmth that triggered a massive decline in sea ice and snow.
- Early March is around the time when Arctic sea ice typically reaches its maximum extent. 2017 was the lowest maximum extent of Arctic sea ice ever recorded, reaching just 470,000 square miles. For comparison, the average extent between 1981 and 2010 was about 5.57 million square miles. It’s the third year in a row that scientists have seen a record winter low in the Arctic.
- Climate change has already had an impact on Arctic terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems.
- Arctic waters are becoming increasingly acidic (see Ocean Unite’s talking points on Healthy Ocean, Healthy Climate for more information), with a recent US study showing that within the next 15-20 years marine species with hard shells- such as lobster and crab, will find it increasingly difficult to build their shells.
- Many of the adaptations that Arctic plant and animal species have acquired to survive the harsh conditions also limit their ability to respond to warmer climates and other environmental changes.
- Some species, such as grizzly bears, have started moving northward and showing up in areas usually occupied by polar bears and Arctic foxes. But other species, like whales, seals or polar bears, may not adapt quickly enough to the changing conditions.
- Wetlands make up about 11% of the terrestrial surface of the Arctic. They are the summer homes of millions of migratory birds, including the common eider that breeds in the Arctic and winters in more temperate zones. But wetlands – and other freshwater ecosystems – are vulnerable to warmer temperatures, changes in precipitation and thawing permafrost. Ponds and lakes can disappear if the permafrost beneath them thaws.
Oil and Gas Drilling
- The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 13% of the world’s undiscovered reserves of oil, or about 90 billion barrels, of which 84% lie offshore. Natural gas reserves are estimated at 47 trillion cubic metres of gas and 44 billion barrels of liquefied petroleum gas, or 30% of undiscovered gas reserves and 20% of undiscovered LPG.
- Oil companies are eyeing up the Arctic despite its remoteness, investment risk and having some of the most challenging and unpredictable drilling conditions in the world including extreme weather, floating ice and a challenging Ocean environment.
- In the Arctic, clean-up from an oil spill is immensely difficult because of the physical conditions and techniques available to contain and clean-up an oil spill are inadequate, meaning that the consequences of a spill for Arctic life are catastrophic. There are two reasons not to drill in the Arctic: we just are not ready to drill there; and, we have a moral imperative not to continue the cycle of dependency that the melting Arctic epitomizes.
- It is one of the great ironies of our time that the very companies that have profited from the carbon economy, the collateral damage of which includes the significant melting now occurring in the Arctic, are now looking to the Arctic as the next great frontier for oil and gas drilling.
- At the end of 2016 both US President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau announced that they would ban new offshore oil and gas leases in their countries’ Arctic waters. This marked a vital step towards protection of this fragile environment. However, President Trump recently opened up US waters not only in the Arctic, but also the Pacific and Atlantic to oil drilling. The Trump Administration has also now given the go-ahead for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This move harms the Ocean, coastal economies, public health and marine life.
- The receding sea ice is opening up new fishing opportunities in the Arctic, and increasingly warmer waters are encouraging commercial fish stocks, such as cod, and industrial-scale fishing vessels to move northwards.
- Fisheries are moving further north on the Atlantic side of the Arctic, as commercial fishing is absent from the Pacific following the US government’s precautionary move in 2008 to stop all commercial fishing north of the Bering Strait until more is known about the effects of the changing climate on the marine area.
- The region is very vulnerable to the impacts of overfishing, and may be very slow to recover, having disastrous impacts on wildlife such as polar bears and seals.
- The Arctic 5 nations have agreed that there will be no commercial fishing in the high seas area of the Central Arctic Ocean until there is better scientific knowledge about the marine life found there and until a regulatory system is in place to protect these resources.
- At the end of 2017 10 Arctic countries and distant water fishing nations(including China, Japan, EU, Iceland and the Republic of Korea) agreed to keep the 1.1 million km2 of the Central Arctic Ocean off limits to commercial fishing for at least 16 years. This time-out will give the opportunity for more scientific research in the region so we can better understand the impacts of climate change on the area, including its fish stocks and Arctic marine life, and what is needed to ensure protection of this special place.
- The melting ice is not only opening up the area to fishing vessels but also to increased shipping activity. New shipping routes are being created such as the Northwest and Northeast Passages from Europe to Asia and Asia to North America. A record was set in 2017, with a ship able to navigate through the Northwest Passage, earlier in the season than ever before.
- The rates that sea ice is retreating means that soon it will be possible for commercial shipping vessels to use the Northern Sea route as a viable alternative to the Suez Canal all year round.
- New Arctic shipping routes could cut the journey time between some Asian and European ports by between a third to a half, saving companies huge amounts of fuel, the cost of the tolls for going through the Suez or Panama Canal and avoiding high risk piracy areas.
- The Arctic is a harsh environment to operate in, with hazards from floating ice, fog and violent storms. In combination with poor mapping, insufficient resources for search and rescue capacity and the difficulty of clearing up oil spills in the region. Each of these means that the environmental risks of an oil spill from a tanker are significantly increased. This is especially problematic with spills involving heavy fuel oil, which is much more hazardous than other oil, and if it leaks out it is very slow to break down, especially in cold water.
- Increased shipping also raises the risk of ship strikes for marine mammals, as well as noise pollution and invasive species entering the waters. This puts the Arctic Ocean, its wildlife, and the people who depend on them at risk.
- The new IMO Polar Code includes new measures for ships operating in polar areas. It came into force on the 1st January 2017. It is an important step to promote safe shipping operations and protection of the polar environment.
- A key weakness is that unlike in the Antarctic, the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO) by vessels is still not banned in the Arctic. This is hugely problematic as this type of oil is much more hazardous than other oil, and if leaked, it is very slow to break down, especially in cold water, wreaking havoc on the environment.
- Around 75% of marine fuel currently carried in the Arctic is heavy fuel oil, and more than half is carried by vessels flagged to non-Arctic states- countries that have little if any connection to the Arctic.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN?
- Protecting the Arctic is one of the most urgent issues of our time, as we are literally seeing a new Ocean open up before us.
- We have so much more to gain from protecting this amazing fragile environment for future generations than exploiting it for the benefit of a handful of corporations.
- The Arctic can only be protected if we cut carbon emissions as far and as fast as possible, and at the same time, fully protect large marine areas to help Arctic marine ecosystems build resilience to the changes happening around them.
- No oil and gas drilling should be allowed in the Arctic as is too dangerous, too expensive, and has no place in a sustainable future for the region.
- Arctic nations need to take greater action to establish an effective network of marine reserves in the region.
- Canada has been making great progress in 2017, with the announcement of the 2nd largest MPA in the Arctic and new Ocean protection around Canada’s Scott Islands, and is consulting on the proposal for a new MPA in Nova Scotia
- Distant water fishing nations should join the Arctic countries to ensure the enforcement of the agreement to not fish commercially in the central Arctic Ocean. They should work together to ensure the long-term protection of this area of ecological and biological significance by establishing a large-scale marine reserve in the high seas area of the central Arctic Ocean.
- The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), as the specialist body responsible for the safety of maritime activities, should ban heavy fuel oil use in the Arctic by 2020, and urge the shipping industry to switch to higher quality, alternative fuels before the ban is in place. This is the simplest and easiest measure to enforce and provides the best protection for the Arctic.
- Shipping must be strictly regulated with access allowed only for those vessels which comply with precautionary environmental regulations which take into account the vulnerability of the biodiversity in the region (i.e. avoiding whale migration routes, avoiding areas of high biodiversity composition).