Off the shores of St. Lawrence Island in the frigid Bering Sea, Pacific walruses use their sensitive whiskers to find food: shrimp, crabs, soft corals, and mollusks that thrive in Arctic currents. They use their long tusks to “haul out” on packed ice, where they rest and warm up. But as sea ice melts at record rates due to climate change, it’s likely to affect the walruses’ ability to hunt and survive. They’re not alone — a wide variety of Arctic animals are already struggling with the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification. And now another threat is looming: expanding industry.
As once firmly frozen Arctic ice melts, industries such as shipping, oil and gas development, and commercial fishing are eager to move in to areas that were previously inaccessible, seeking new resources and profits. Doing so poses definite threats to wildlife — including many endangered or threatened species — and the environment on which many of the 4 million people who live in the Arctic depend for survival and cultural health. But currently there are few international controls in place to protect sensitive marine areas and ensure industrial activities are conducted safely.
That’s why NRDC released a report on April 27 with the International Union for Conservation of Nature highlighting the most ecologically valuable and vulnerable spots in the Arctic that should be considered for protection. The list represents the findings of an international workshop held at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography last fall, a meeting that included top scientists from around the Arctic and leaders of indigenous Arctic communities.
The report identifies 77 areas that merit consideration for protection. Of this list, it also identifies 13 that stand out, ecologically speaking, as especially valuable and/or vulnerable. The 13 priority places identified in the report include: St. Lawrence Island, Bering Strait, and Wrangel Island (off the U,S, and the Russian Federation); the Chukchi Beaufort Coast (U.S.), Beaufort Coast/Cape Bathurst (Canada), Polar Pack Refugium, Lancaster Sound/North Water Polynya, Disko Bay/Store Hellefiskebanke, (off Canada and Greenland) White Sea/Barents Sea Coast, Pechora Sea/Kara Gate, Novaya Zemlya, High Arctic Islands and Shelf, and the Great Siberian Polynya,(off Norway and the Russian Federation).
Of the 13 priority Arctic places identified in the report – three fall under (full or partial) U.S. jurisdiction:
St. Lawrence Island is home to native Yupik people, who have long hunted walrus and other sea life for subsistence. Considered the last stretch of the land bridge that connected North America to Asia, it is also home to plethora of wildlife, including most of the world’s spectacled eiders, a threatened diving duck.
Spectacled Elders south of St. Lawrence Island. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The Bering Strait region, north of St. Lawrence Island, is where the Arctic and Pacific oceans meet. One of the Arctic’s most productive regions, the strait is a migratory corridor and key habitat area for whales, seals, over 40 types of birds — and of course, walrus. Offshore drilling or a parade of ships through the Strait could alter the migration patterns of endangered bowhead whales. An oil spill would devastate crucial feeding, breeding and nursery grounds for many species — and there’s no effective way to clean up spills in broken ice.
Aerial shot of the Bering Strait. (Photo courtesy of NASA)
The Chukchi Beaufort Coast spans the northern side of Alaska. Polar bears den on the ice and the barrier islands each winter and hunt seals on floating ice. Already threatened with extinction as ice melts, a major oil spill would further reduce their chance at survival.
Oil spills, increased pollution, and habitat degradation — real possibilities that come along with the advance of industry — would be particularly damaging in the most vulnerable places identified in today’s report. The Arctic is a shared resource, one beautiful and rich with life, but it’s also unique in its exceptionally slow pace of recovery. Disaster here could mean there is no turning back. The U.S. should lead the international community in making sure they are protected as the ice melts and industry moves in.