Putting a stop to the Arctic Meltdown

Feature story - 26 January, 2010
Should the oil companies be allowed to take advantage of melting ice to drill for more oil in the warming Arctic? Should industrial fishing fleets be allowed to chase the last remnants of fished-out stocks into the areas where ice has previously stopped their ships? We say no: as should anyone who believes you don't put out a fire with gasoline.

Save this: A polar bear photographed from the deck of the Arctic Sunrise.

The retreat of polar sea-ice is one of our planet's emergency warning signals that business as usual is putting us all in hot water. Yet at the Arctic Frontier conference in Tromsø, Norway,governments and corporate interests are considering measures to turn regions of newly ice-free ocean into a bonanza for big business.

It's not time for a free-for-all. It's time to protect the Arctic Ocean from additional stress to give the ecosystem, the fish and wildlife it supports and the people and communities who depend on it the best chance of adaptation and survival. 

And that's why today, among the gathered dignataries, industrial representatives, and scientists who are attending the meeting, we are calling for an immediate moratorium on all industrialactivities in areas historically covered by sea-ice. 

As Mads Christensen, Executive Director of Greenpeace Nordic said in demanding the ban: "We are at a crossroads, the path we take is an intelligence test: do we drill and burn the fossil fuels reserves that are accessible only because climate change is causing the sea ice to melt? Or do we protect the Arctic and give it and the communities living there a chance to adapt to the already serious changes taking place?" 

Arctic Meltdown

The Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise in front of Humboldt glacier zoom

Photos from the 2009 Arctic Meltdown expedition presented at the Arctic Frontier conference in Tromsø (January 25th to 29th 2010).

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It's a bold demand.  But someone has to speak for the global commons, and for the wildlife and nature which has no voice at the table.

Human Damage

As the Arctic Ocean melts, more areas that were historically blocked byice are opening every year. Oil companies from around the world arescrambling to obtain permits to drill for oil in the Arctic sea floor.These companies are often coming from Arctic Coastal States like theUnited States and Norway.

The Arctic region has shown in the past to be extremely vulnerable to oil spills - more than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, oil from that disaster can still be found in Prince William Sound.

Knowing this, it seems incredible that permits for oil and gas drilling should even be considered. Yet considered and granted they have been, most recently in the Chuchki Sea, north of the Bering Strait. Damage from a spill would be extremely hard to clean-up, and would threaten the already stressed Arctic fauna and flora.

Ironically, the possibility of drilling for oil would not even exist were it not for climate change and the human addiction to burning fossil fuels. Climate Change is already having clear impacts in the Arctic, in particular on the glaciers in Greenland as well as on the extent of sea-ice.

Greenpeace hosted scientists last summer on board the Arctic Sunrise to study the extent of the damage. The preliminary results of their research will be presented at the Arctic Frontiers conference, in the scientific part of the programme.

Some of the stunning photos made during the trip will also be presented, to remind the delegates of what is at stake.

Sea ice underpins the Arctic Ocean ecosystem, it's hard to imagine the range and severity of impacts that will occur as the ice continues to shrink, thin and disappear year round, but we do know there will be a big impact on ice-dependent species such as polar bears, walrus, ice seals and whales - It is very unlikely that these species could adapt to life on land in the absence of summer sea ice. In turn, the communities which depend on them for subsistence will be severely stressed.

Ocean Acidification

But retreating ice is not the only threat which the Arctic faces. As carbon dioxide from the burning of oil and gas goes into the atmosphere, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the ocean go up as well, making it more acidic. Carbon dioxide dissolves in cold water faster than it does in warm. But that storage comes with a price. The ocean's pH value has dropped nearly 30 percent over the past 250 years to levels not seen in 800,000 years. The prediction is that within 50 years at most the acidity of the ocean will reach a point where it will affect the production of shells in plankton, with follow-on impacts that ripple on up the food chain to affect stocks of fish and shellfish, as well as birds and marine mammals. 

Adding to the stress of declining sea-ice with new stresses resulting from human industrial activity would be madness. In the absence of a deep understanding of the future of the Arctic ecosystem and the vulnerability of its wildlife, the precautionary principle demands to we keep industrial activities out: the onus is on the oil, fisheries, and minerals industry to prove their activities will be sustainable -- not on the environmental community to demonstrate likely harm. 

World Park Arctic?

To whom does the Arctic Ocean belong? The countries now claiming the sea-bed as their own were the same who agreed with Greenpeace in the 1990s that Antarctica should be set aside for humanity. Now that they have the opportunity to claim a bit of a shrinking pie, however, all thoughts of doing the right thing or proper stewardship of a fragile ecosystem are being set aside.

Despite the massive pressure of profit, however, Greenpeace believes that it is possible to protect this ocean from further destruction. The marine ecosystem is going to be submitted to incredible pressure once the sea ice melts. It is essential that human activities do not impose further pressure that can be avoided.

Industries and countries eager to move in on the Arctic Ocean may consider it  far fetched that they will be thwarted. But we know from experience that when millions of people draw a line in the ice and tell industry to keep their hands off, the impossible can happen. Antarctica is safe from oil exploration today. We need to protect the Arctic for tomorrow.

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