Expedition launch: Arctic Under Pressure

Greenpeace heads to Arctic to investigate urgent ocean threats

Feature story - May 12, 2010
We are returning to the Arctic Ocean with our ship the Esperanza this month to reinforce the urgent need to protect one of the most pristine and fragile environments on Earth.

Our ship departs soon from Germany

The Esperanza will arrive in the Arctic waters of Svalbard later this month.

The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet. As the sea ice vanishes, the fragile marine ecosystem is becoming disrupted and fishing fleets are racing northwards to exploit previously unreachable stocks. At the same time, increasing carbon dioxide levels from fossil fuels and forest destruction are changing the chemistry of our oceans and creating a severe threat to marine life.

The acid test

Our ship, Esperanza, and its crew are joining leading scientists to investigate the change in marine chemistry - called 'ocean acidification' as part of our 'Arctic Under Pressure Expedition'. Although this is a lesser known impact of carbon dioxide (CO2), it has the potential to disrupt our oceans just as much as climate change. The effects of ocean acidification are expected to hit first and hardest in the Arctic, but pose a serious threat to all ocean life, which is already struggling with climate change, over-fishing and pollution.

Each year, our oceans absorb around 8 billion tonnes of the CO2 produced by the use of fossil fuels. The change in ocean chemistry is already evident and causing problems for shell-building sea creatures. But, as the situation worsens, it could cause the breakdown of marine ecosystems and affect the overall ocean health. The survival of corals, plankton and other critical sea life is severely threatened. If CO2 emissions continue to rise at projected rates, there could be a 120 percent increase in ocean acidity by 2060. Ocean chemistry probably hasn’t changed this much, or this quickly, for 21 million years.

In the first experiment of its kind, we are supporting the German marine research institute IFM-GEOMAR (Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences) to study the effects of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems. The 'Esperanza' is taking scientists and over 30 tonnes of scientific equipment, including nine giant marine monitoring systems called 'mesocosms', to the Svalbard islands in the Arctic. Scientists from nine countries will be taking part in this research, which is the most comprehensive study on ocean acidification to date. It will highlight yet another scientific reason why we must make deep and urgent cuts in global CO2 emissions.

Under pressure

Thinning ice

Prof. Peter Wadhams and his team study Arctic ice thickness in 2009 - with the Greenpeace ship, Arctic Sunrise.

Throughout the northern hemisphere summer, our ‘Arctic Under Pressure Expedition’ will also expose and document the other serious threats to the Arctic Ocean. The melting of sea ice and the expansion of fishing industries into this region are endangering the pristine Arctic environment and unique wildlife. In attempting to secure 'rights' to Arctic fisheries, new transport routes, oil, gas and mineral resources, countries gain a vested interest in the continued melting of the Arctic. But, the more coal, oil and gas we burn, the faster the Arctic melts and the closer our planet comes to catastrophic climate change.

Professor Peter Wadhams, head of Cambridge University’s Polar Ocean Physics Group, will join the 'Esperanza' in August to investigate the thickness of the ice and its melting rate, following on from his 2009 Arctic work with Greenpeace.

Polar protection

The Arctic Ocean deserves full protection as a marine reserve and we are calling for a moratorium on all industrial activities there - including fishing. In 1991, after a long Greenpeace campaign, the 39 Antarctic Treaty signatories agreed to a 50-year minimum prohibition of all mineral exploitation, in effect preserving the continent for peaceful, scientific purposes. This serves as an example of how Arctic territorial issues should be handled.

The Antarctic is a landmass surrounded by oceans, the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land, but the polar regions still have a lot in common. Both are incredibly fragile and susceptible to human activities. Both are part of the global commons and should be protected in perpetuity. Both are relatively untouched and should stay that way.

Don't let it melt away

Quit coal

Carbon emissions from coal are destroying polar bear habitat.

We're also calling on governments to quit coal and spark an energy [r]evolution in order to reduce our carbon dioxide emmissions so that we can avoid the worst effects of climate change and save the Arctic together with all of its amazing wildlife, including polar bears and ringed seals. Governments need to realise the impacts of each new coal fired power plant they approve, and we'll be in the Arctic for the next three months to show them.

Take Action: Help protect the polar bears -- join the call for a global network of marine reserves that includes a fully protected Arctic Ocean
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Check out the webcam on the Esperanza