The Arctic region is under threat from climate change, increased exploitation, and a lot more.
The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe and is experiencing some of the most severe climate change impacts on Earth. One of the most notable is the rapid decline in the thickness, age and extent of sea ice. Thinner and younger ice melts much faster, and scientists are predicting that Arctic summers may be virtually free of sea ice within 30 years.
Northern Lights [aurora borealis] over Richardson Mountains, Yukon Territory, Canada.
© Bernd Roemmelt / Greenpeace
Why is that a problem? Sea ice underpins the entire Arctic marine ecosystem, and as it shrinks and thins, there are major repercussions for the Arctic peoples and wildlife. Many polar species such as polar bears and ringed seals depend on the ice to survive. Many more species could be touched by the melting ice cap than we even know of.
The Arctic is one of the regions where the effects from global warming are the direst. As the reflective ice cap is replaced with open seas, heat from the sun is absorbed into the ocean, resulting in even more warming. Carbon contained in the permanently frozen ground (permafrost) in the tundra is also a major problem: as the ground thaws, that carbon can be released into the atmosphere as CO2 or methane (a highly potent greenhouse gas), thus accelerating global warming. Scientists warn that thawing Arctic permafrost could release more carbon than remains in the carbon budget we must stick to if we’re to have a good chance of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The ice lying on top of the land mass, like in Greenland, will contribute to sea level rise as it melts. The ice sheet is melting at an alarming rate, as the summer 2012 Greenpeace expedition demonstrated.
If we are to solve the climate crisis, we have to do it before these feedback effects get beyond recovery.
Seismic blasting (also labeled as ‘seismic surveying’ or ‘seismic testing’) is a method to locate oil and gas deposits under the sea bed. Seismic vessels tow an array of airguns or air cannons that continuously blast loud sounds down through the water column and into the seabed with intervals as short as ten seconds. The operations can go on for weeks on end, depending on the size of area designated for the survey. Hydrophones are also towed behind the vessel to record sound waves reflected back up by the various geological formations below the seabed, revealing where oil and gas deposits may lie.
Seismic blasting threatens marine life that is already vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Air cannons used in seismic testing send sound waves that can permanently damage or even kill marine mammals nearby. Whales, for instance, rely on sound to navigate, communicate, respond to predators and search for food; hence noise pollution poses a serious threat and is known to have harmful consequences.
Oil companies see receding sea ice as an opportunity to move in and make the climate crisis even worse by exploiting the Arctic for its oil resources. The irony is tragic: if we weren't burning so much fossil fuel like oil and other fossil fuels, those oil companies wouldn't have the opportunity to move into the Arctic. They want to keep this deadly cycle of fossil fuel extraction and global warming going as long as possible - and to do that they need to keep the world addicted to oil. Spending billions on drilling in the Arctic, instead of improving our public transportation systems and forcing automobile companies to achieve better fuel efficiency, is keeping us addicted to oil, and only makes the problem worse.
Drilling for oil in the Arctic is extremely dangerous. The sea-ice, as well as extreme weather conditions, make clean-up of probable oil spills very difficult. Collisions of icebergs with oil platforms are a very real possibility. The oil industry's way of dealing with icebergs seems inadequate in comparison with the threat: fire ships are used to hose down and melt icebergs that come too close to the platform.
In December 2013, Gazprom began drilling in the Pechora Sea, making it the first company to commercially extract oil in far-offshore, ice-covered Arctic waters. Greenpeace was at the forefront of protecting the region and confronted Gazprom just three months before drilling commenced. Our protest was cut short and met with gunfire and intimidation following at attempt to peacefully deploy a banner on the side of Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya oil platform. A day later Russian authorities illegally seized the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise in international waters and arrested everyone on board: 28 crew and two journalists. Known as the Arctic 30, these brave men and women were detained for months and were later granted amnesty after the Russian government faced international pressure and calls for their freedom from millions of supporters, human rights organizations, Nobel Laureates, and more.
As the sea ice melts, more oil exploration is possible. If oil deposits are found, exploitation follows inevitably. Geologists believe that that one third of the planet's crude oil is located under the seabed. Unfortunately, companies and governments seem to have learned very little from previous oil catastrophes. Arctic countries are trying to expand their sovereignty over the sea-bed as far as they can.
Close up of the oil still present 15 years after the original Exxon Valdez spill.
Open seas also mean more shipping. More shipping means more risks of ships grounding, oil spills and chemical spills. Both poles are far more vulnerable than the rest of the planet to oil spills. The low temperatures, the lack of light as well as the small amount of search and rescue stations means that any accident is going to have a long lasting impact on the environment. Look no further than the infamous Exxon Valdez grounding for this. Twenty years after it happened, oil is still leaking from under rocks in Prince William Sound.
Oil can irritate the skin of some Arctic species, and reduce their defenses against the cold. Bird feathers can also become soaked in oil and prevent them from flying. And the risk of ingesting oil and inhaling toxic fumes is high.
Sea otter at rehabilitation centre in Valdez after Exxon Valdez oil spill.
A lot of pollution in the Arctic doesn't originate there. Air and marine currents bring the toxic chemicals that are emitted in Asia, Europe and North America. These are then ingested by fauna and flora.
The amount of mercury found in many animals hunted by Indigenous populations currently exceeds the commonly agreed food-safety levels. These levels also contribute to further endangering species already facing a number of threats.
Persistent organic pollutants like DDT, DDE and other pesticides also find their way to the Arctic.
The tragedy of the Arctic is that the damage of global warming and trans-boundary pollution is caused thousands of kilometers away, and Arctic inhabitants are largely powerless to stop the destruction of their environment.