A confluence of melting sea ice and increased demand for Arctic resources may spell disaster for the earth's last great frontier - but it doesn't have to.
Thanks to global warming, sea ice is disappearing from the Arctic at a rapidly accelerating rate. In 2007, Arctic ice was at an all-time low, and some scientists now predict an ice-free Arctic summer as early as 2013.
Declining sea ice puts the future of many of the Arctic's remarkable creatures in doubt. Ice serves as the platform for birthing seals, feeding walruses and roaming polar bears. Colorful algae colonies that live on ice form the bedrock of the marine food web. Tiny creatures feed on the algae and are in turn eaten by fish, and eventually the repercussions cascade across the food web to affect predators like narwhals and polar bears.
Less sea ice also means more open water, which encourages a new frontierism in the Arctic on a scale perhaps not seen since the Gold Rush - a kind of cold rush towards the promise of oil, gas and fish. This adds enormous pressures on the already stressed Arctic.
In February, the United States auctioned oil and gas exploration rights in the remote and ice-choked Chukchi Sea, racking up bids totaling a record $2.7 billion for the right to drill for the sea's estimated 15 billion barrels of oil and 77 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. New oil development will bring massive oil tankers into previously inaccessible waters, including the fabled Northwest Passage, increasing the odds of an oil spill similar to the Exxon Valdez disaster.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service estimates that offshore oil development in the Arctic is likely to result in at least one oil spill. Currently, there is no technology to control or clean up a spill from any of these sources in icy Arctic waters.
Finally, coldwater fish are streaming northward as a result of global warming, with some species heading into the Arctic. The industrial fishing ships that target these species will follow.
The confluence of increased access and increased demand for Arctic resources at this critical moment may spell disaster for the earth's last great frontier - but it doesn't have to.
"We need a systematic approach to help the Arctic withstand the effects of global warming, including the loss of sea ice, which includes slowing down the hasty industrialization of the Arctic," said Jim Ayers, Vice President of Oceana Pacific. Oceana is developing a multi-pronged approach to preserving the Arctic with its allies in the conservation movement.
Oceana has joined with Arctic peoples and other conservation groups in opposing gas and oil lease sales that are held prior to careful examination of the potential environmental impacts, and has legally opposed the Chukchi Sea auction. Oceana also campaigns to ensure that that there are shipping standards in place before any vessel traffic expands into the Arctic, including effective planning, safety measures and spill response capabilities. Oceana also seeks to ensure that any expansion of large-scale industrial fishing in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas does not threaten those ecosystems.
"As goes the Arctic, so goes the planet," said Ayers. "There are enormous challenges facing the Arctic and the world, and what we do, or do not do, to protect the Arctic will be a large part of our legacy to future generations. We must ask ourselves what kind of legacy we will leave."
Arctic Ice Extent, 1979-2007
Arctic ice extent in September since 1979, showing an average loss of 28,000 square miles per year. In 2007, ice extent was 39 percent below the long-term average.