The National Snow and Ice Data Center has announced that Arctic sea ice melted to its yearly minimum extent last Sunday, which was the smallest extent since measurements began in 1979 and a whopping 49% below the 1979 to 2000 average. With ice vanishing at rates that exceed even the most sophisticated computer models there is one guarantee, that it’s going to shrink even more
We know Arctic sea ice will continue to shrink for two reasons. First, we are continuing to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And second, solar radiation and melting sea ice interact as a system known as a positive feedback loop. Sunlight that hits white arctic sea ice is largely reflected back to space. Throughout modern civilization Arctic sea ice has acted as a sort of thermostat, regulating the earth’s temperature. But as the climate warms, and the Arctic ice melts, the sunlight instead hits much darker seawater. Rather than reflecting that energy back to space, open-ocean waters absorb vastly more of the sun’s energy, which in turn warms the water, accelerating the rate of melt.
The Arctic’s Northeast Passage is home to walruses, beluga whales, narwhals, and many other marine animals, most of whom have probably never seen an oil tanker or shipping vessel. Unfortunately, thanks to global climate change, that could soon change.
As the planet continues to warm, the coveted Northeast Passage has become ice-free and thus open to cargo ships, oil drillers, and fishing vessels for the first time.
There’s huge incentive for commerce and industry to use the Northeast Passage. The New York Times writes that the opening of the Passage shortens the travel time and reduces costs for shipping between Northern Europe and Asian markets. Companies like Exxon Mobil are attracted to the potential of oil and minerals in the Arctic seabed. And the elusive Arctic “Donut Hole,” a patch of international and unregulated waters in the center of the Ocean, is full of valuable fish including overfished Atlantic cod stocks.
Offshore drilling, increased shipping traffic, and fishing vessels in the Northeast Passage threatens one of the great patches of marine wilderness in the world. Drilling in the Arctic could mean a spill in a place as remote as Northern Russia, which would make the Gulf of Mexico oil spill cleanup look like a cinch, primarily because cleanup mechanisms such as booms don’t work properly in icy waters.
We’ve been campaigning against offshore oil drilling to protect vulnerable Arctic habitats. We'll continue working with local native communities to ensure that future generations will see a healthy and vibrant Arctic. You can help by supporting our work to fight oil drilling in the Arctic.