The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe and is experiencing some of the most severe climate impacts on Earth. One of the most notable is the rapid decline in the thickness, age and extent of sea ice. Thiner and younger ice melts much faster, and scientists are predicting that by 2030, the Arctic Ocean will be entirely ice-free in the summer.
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
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 depend on the ice to survive - polar bears are the most famous example, but ringed seals also spend most of their time on ice, travelling North to find thicker, more stable one. The Arctic is still under-explored and many more species could be touched by the melting ice cap than we even know of.
The Arctic is also one of the regions where the feed-back effects from Global Warming are the most dire. As the white ice cap is replaced with dark seas, sun light is less and less reflected by in space, allowing for more warming to happen on the planet. The quantities of methane contained in the permanently frozen ground (permafrost) in the tundra is also a major problem: as the ground melts, more methane (one of the most potent greenhouse gases) is released in the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.
In particular, the ice laying on top of the land mass, like in Greenland, will contribute to sea level rising. The ice sheet has been melting faster than ever in recent years, as the summer 2009 Greenpeace expedition demonstrated.
These are factors humans cannot control, and if we are to solve the climate crisis, we have to do it before these feedback effects get beyond recovery.
As the sea-ice receeds, oil companies are seeing an opportunity to move into the Arctic and try to exploit the oil reserves - both onshore and offshore. Cairn Energy has already started exploratory drilling, and while it failed to strike oil in 2010, the company is hoping to start again in 2011. Drilling for oil in the Arctic is however extremely dangerous. The sea-ice, as well as extreme weather conditions make clean-up of possible oil spills very difficult.
In addition, the particularities of the Arctic make oil drilling more dangerous than usual. For instance, collisions of icebergs with oil platforms are a very real possibility. The oil industry's way of dealing with icebergs seems careless in comparision with the threat: fireships are used to hose down and melt icebergs that come too close to the platform.
The irony is tragic: if we weren't burning so much fossil fuels like oil, those oil companies wouldn't have to opportunity to move in the Arctic. It is in their interest to keep the tragedy going for as long as possible - and keep the world addicted to oil. Drilling in the Arctic, instead of improving our transport system and forcing car companies to achieve better fuel efficiency, is keeping us addicted to oil, and only makes the problem worse.
As oil companies move into the Arctic, fragile habitats are threatened. The map below highlights where they are going, and their history in the region - as well as the threats they are posing.
View Arctic oil threats in a larger map
As the sea ice melts, more exploitation is possible. Geologists believe that that one third of the planet's crude oil is located under the sea-bed. Unfortunately, the lessons that should be taught on how much disaster is caused by current oil exploitation - from oil spills to the very global warming that opens these oil fields for exploitation. Arctic States are trying to expend 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 grounding, oil spills and chemical spills. Both poles are far more vulnerable than the rest of the planet to oil spills. The low temperatures, lack of light as well 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. 20 years after it happened, oil is still leaking from under rocks in the Prince William sound.
Oil can irritate the skin of some Arctic species, and reduce their defenses against the cold. Bird feathers can also become entangled in the oil and prevent them from flying. Most of the time, they laos ingest the oil and inhale some toxic fumes.
Sea otter at rehabilitation centre in Valdez after Exxon Valdez oil spill.
A lot of pollution in the Arctic doesn't orginate there. Air and marine currents bring the toxic chemicals that are emitting in Eurasia and North America. These are then ingested by fauna and flora.
The amount of mercury found in fauna hunted by the aborigene population currently excedes the commonly agreed food-safety levels. These levels also contribute to further endangering species already facing a number of threats.
Persistant organic pollutants like DDT, DDE and other pesticides also find their way to the Arctic, where they are almost never used, since there is no agriculture there.
The greatest tragedy of the Arctic, is that the damage of global warming and transboundary pollution is caused thousands of kilometers away, and the native inhabitants are laregely powerless to stop the destruction of their environment.