Blog Tags: Arctic
For the past five years, the oil industry has kept up a relentless campaign to drill in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean. Oil exploration and drilling would put this exceptional ecosystem at great risk from a disastrous (and inevitable) oil spill, greatly harming marine life, fish species, and coastal communities.
The occurrence of human diseases in marine mammals is rapidly on the rise and an alarming development for our oceans. The latest species to succumb is the canary of the sea: the beluga whale.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia recently discovered Toxoplasma gondii, a devastating parasite, in a western Arctic population of beluga whales.
The Arctic is one of the world’s most spectacular ecosystems, but it’s also one of the most at-risk. Climate change is already changing this ice-filled landscape, while countries and corporations compete for a its rich natural resources, untapped sources of energy, and emerging trade routes.
Yesterday, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell delivered an address to the National Press Club in which she focused on the Obama administration’s “conservation agenda.” Rightfully, she talked about what sort of “conservation legacy” the administration seeks to leave for this and future generations. We were heartened to hear about her commitments to good stewardship of our public lands and waters, outdoor education, and renewable resources.
The Arctic is a fragile ecosystem sitting alone at the top of the world.
On March 12 The Economist is hosting its Arctic Summit in Oslo, where 150 interested policy-makers, CEOs and influential commentators will come together to discuss the possibilities for a responsibly governed Arctic.
At Oceana we work hard to protect the Arctic’s marine ecosystem and the subsistence life of its peoples. In order to make real progress, all of the intersecting threats—climate change, industrial fishing, shipping, pollution, and oil and gas development—need to be addressed together. You can make a difference in the Arctic by signing Oceana’s petition to stop oil and gas drilling.
We commend The Economist and all of the Arctic Summit participants for taking on such an important and critical set of issues.
Stay tuned for an update from our own Nicolas Fournier, who will be representing Oceana at the conference.
After just one day of drilling in the Arctic, ice floes forced Shell to halt its operations in the Chukchi Sea. The problems point to the inherent danger in drilling for oil in such an unforgiving landscape. While oil spills occur nearly every day in the Gulf of Mexico, high winds, waves, fog and unpredictable ice floes promise to make drilling in the Arctic even more fraught with hazard.
Following last week’s approval by the Department of the Interior, Shell began drilling its first exploration well off the coast of Northern Alaska on Sunday, but abruptly stopped on Monday as the ice closed in.
In August, Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless condemned Shell’s push into the far North.
“There is no price tag on the Arctic,” he said. “No matter how much money the company spends or how many vessels it mobilizes, Shell should not be allowed put the Arctic Ocean at risk.”
Meanwhile, Shell has been wrangling with the Coast Guard to approve an oil-spill containment barge for the site, the Arctic Challenger, a long-neglected hulk that had become Caspian Tern habitat moored off the West coast for decades.
With ice cover retreating to historic lows, Shell has been at the forefront in pushing forward with plans to exploit the Arctic. But, even in light of the BP disaster, little progress has been made in the way of offshore drilling safety, as outlined in an Oceana report issued earlier this year.
And, as that report also noted, frigid temperatures, months of continuous darkness and a lack of infrastructure in northern Alaska would make any response to an Arctic oil spill especially difficult.
This summer Shell also received a green light from the government to harass marine mammals, such as bowhead whales and walrus, as it pushed forward with the disruptive activity that inevitably accompanies oil exploration, such as noise, air and water pollution from ice-breaking and drill ships.
Think that you could survive in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean? Probably not, but beluga whales have certainly found a way.
The beluga whale, sometimes known as the white whale, is an unusual-looking marine mammal. A typical individual can be 13-20 feet long, and with its white coloring and distinctively lumpy head, the beluga is one of a kind. You can find belugas way up north in the waters of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Russia.
Beluga whales have many adaptations that allow them to live in extremely cold waters. They don’t have a dorsal fin, which is believed to help them survive under ice. They have round bodies and a thick layer of blubber to keep out the cold.
So what’s with that protruding lump on the beluga’s head? It’s called a melon, and other marine mammals like dolphins and porpoises have it too. It’s an organ with lots of oils and fats that is believed to be important during echolocation. The melon of a beluga whale is unique: by blowing air around its sinuses, a beluga whale can change the shape of its melon, which may be used in specialized under-ice echolocation.
The beluga whale is referred to as a sea canary, because of its high-pitched song. Individuals use squeaks, clucks and whistles to communicate with each other. Belugas are a very social species, and live together in groups called pods. When they move into bays, estuaries, and rivers during the summer they have been known to congregate in the thousands. Pods aren’t permanent though—belugas switch social groups frequently, sometimes moving hundreds of miles to join another group.
Beluga whales are smart and playful, and like to spit water at other whales or their keepers in aquariums. They’re the only whale species that’s commonly kept in aquariums, though captive breeding programs haven’t been successful.
Worldwide, beluga whales are ranked as near threatened by the IUCN. A subpopulation in the Cook Inlet in Alaska is listed as critically endangered. They suffer from pollution, especially in the rivers and estuaries they spend their summers in—there have been incidents of cancer in beluga whales linked to pollution in the St. Lawrence River. If we want these unique whales to be around in the future, we have to keep their environment safe and clean.
Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to be on board the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy, in partnership with N.A.S.A.’s ICESCAPE mission to study the effects of ocean acidification on phytoplankton communities in the Arctic Ocean. We collected thousands of water samples and ice cores in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.
While in the northern reaches of the Chukchi Sea, we discovered large “blooms” of phytoplankton under the ice. It had previously been assumed that sea ice blocked the sunlight necessary for the growth of marine plants. But the ice acts like a greenhouse roof and magnifies the light under the ice, creating a perfect breeding ground for the microscopic creatures. Phytoplankton play an important role in the ocean, without which our world would be drastically different.
Phytoplankton take CO2 out of the water and release oxygen, almost as much as terrestrial plants do. The ecological consequences of the bloom are not yet fully understood, but because they are the base of the entire food chain in the oceans, this was a monumental discovery that will shape our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem in the coming years.
The Arctic is one of the last truly wild places on our planet, where walruses, polar bears, and seals out-number humans, and raised their heads in wonderment as we walked along the ice and trespassed into their domain. However, their undeveloped home is currently in grave danger. The sea ice that they depend on is rapidly disappearing as the Arctic is dramatically altered by global warming.
Some predictions are as grave as a seasonally ice-free Arctic by 2050. Drilling for oil in the Arctic presents its own host of problems, most dangerous of which is that there is no proven way to clean up spilled oil in icy conditions. An oil spill in the Arctic could be devastating to the phytoplankton and thereby disrupt the entire ecosystem. The full effects of such a catastrophe cannot be fully evaluated without better information about the ocean, and we should not be so hasty to drill until we have that basic understanding.
Unless we take drastic action to curb our emissions of CO2 and prevent drilling in the absence of basic science and preparedness, we may see not only an ice-free Arctic in our lifetimes, but also an Arctic ecosystem that is drastically altered.
Oceana had a chance to talk to Greg and Shaun MacGillivray, the producers of To the Arctic, an IMAX 3D film that explores the changing landscape of the Arctic and the animals that call it home. Here's what they had to say about survivng the cold and falling in love with a family of polar bears.
Q: Without revealing any spoilers, what is To the Arctic going to show us that we’ve never seen before?
To The Arctic is the first 3D IMAX film ever shot in the Arctic, and because of the immersive, experiential quality of 3D IMAX footage shown on screens 80 feet tall, audiences will feel like they have been transported to this incredibly wild and pristine place without even having to put a parka on. We were extremely lucky while shooting in Norway to find a mother polar bear and her two cubs willing to let us follow and film them at close range for five days straight, which is unprecedented. Polar bears are usually skittish around humans and will avoid them. But this mother was completely comfortable with us and even seemed to like having us nearby. The result is that we were able to capture extremely rare, close-up footage showing the daily lives of a polar bear family in a changing Arctic, and the incredible lengths to which this mother went to protect and nurture her cubs. We saw her fend off four different attacks by hungry male polar bears in five days, and we have it all on film.
Q: What were some of the challenges filming in Arctic conditions?
In the Arctic we were primarily filming wildlife, which is hard enough in normal conditions. But the extreme cold and wind and remoteness of our locations made it even more difficult than usual. When you’re filming wildlife, there is a lot of waiting and searching for the animals, and then you want to try to capture a variety of animal behaviors, so you have to give yourself lots of time. We were in the field much longer for To The Arctic than for any of our other films—about 8 months over four years—and we were never really comfortable. On one trip, during our three-week stay aboard an icebreaker in Norway, the showers weren’t working, so we didn’t bathe for 21 days straight! For the underwater crew filming under the ice cap, the conditions were even more challenging. They were filming in water that was 29 degrees Fahrenheit, literally “liquid ice.” Only the salt content in the water kept it from freezing. It was so cold that their longest dive was only 45 minutes. Any longer and their hands would have become completely frozen.
Q: How different was diving in the Arctic compared to California?
Well, for one thing, we were filming polar bears underwater, which you don’t find too often in California. To get the shots, we relied on Bob Cranston, a brave underwater cinematographer who has photographed alligators, great white sharks, venomous snakes, and now, the fiercest predator of all--polar bears. They are eating machines, so we sent in Bob. He invented a way to film them by diving down below them, then waiting for the bear’s natural curiosity to cause them to investigate our cameras. If the bears got too close for comfort, Bob would sink down out of range. Polar bears don’t like to dive too deep—the deepest we saw them dive was about 20 feet—so as long as Bob picked spots where the water was deeper than that, he felt relatively safe.
Sunday night, Discovery Channel aired the final episode of the Frozen Planet series that aired on the BBC last year.
This episode featured Sir David Attenborough visiting both poles – huddled by a sedated polar bear in the Arctic, hollering over the extreme winds at his Antarctic campsite – reminding the audience of a cold reality regarding any species’ survival: it’s adapt or die.