THE ARCTIC MELTDOWN
Climate change is a direct threat to biodiversity in all corners of the world, but nowhere are its effects more visible than in the Arctic, where the impacts of the climate crisis are hitting earlier and with greater intensity than anywhere else. Winter temperatures have increased by almost 10 degrees Fahrenheit since 1949; by the end of this century, the Far North’s annual average temperatures are expected to rise 9 degrees or more over land and up to 13 degrees over water.
We can see the frightening effects of the Arctic’s rising temperatures in the quick and devastating melt of the region’s sea ice. In 2007 Arctic summer sea ice reached the lowest extent recorded since the dawn of the satellite era — and winter sea ice reached its lowest recorded extent in 2006. Now climate scientists say the Arctic could be completely ice free in the summer by the 2030s.
A DEATH SENTENCE FOR SPECIES
With its unforgiving winds, tremendous cold, winters that never see the sun, and summers that never see the end of it, the Arctic seems like a hard place to eke out a living. Yet it’s home to highly specialized species that have evolved to make the most of their harsh environment, including vast expanses of sea ice. Without enough sea ice, the entire Arctic ecosystem will unravel, and its species will die.
The polar bear the Center has fought so hard to protect, which put global warming’s biodiversity effects on the map with its 2008 Endangered Species Act listing, is the Arctic’s most famous warming-threatened denizen. This “sea bear” uses floating sea ice as a hunting platform, a resting place during long migrations, and a meeting spot for mating and other essential behaviors. Loss of sea ice is already imperiling polar bears; reports of bear drownings, starvation and cannibalism have increased. If current greenhouse gas emissions continue, we’ll lose two-thirds of this splendid species by 2050.
The improbably graceful Pacific walrus — another Arctic giant — and the ringed, spotted, bearded and ribbon seals — some of which are choice polar bear prey — also need sea ice for survival, hauling out on ice floes for resting, socializing, giving birth, raising young and other essential life activities. The Center is working to gain protection for all these pinnipeds.
OIL EXPLORATION: ANOTHER ARCTIC AFFLICTION
Our society’s fossil-fuel addiction is undermining the health of the far North in more ways than one. Like beachgoers chasing receding ocean waves to gather seafood before a tsunami, oil companies are rushing to drill in the Arctic, with the single goal of developing more of the fuel that drives global warming in the first place. Making matters worse, the Arctic’s increasingly ice-free waters are plagued with a proliferation of routes for ships — which contribute a significant 3 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Oil development and shipping are not only a threat to polar bears and ice seals, but also to the highly endangered North Pacific right whale and bowhead whale that frequent the Arctic’s icy waters. And introducing new black-carbon emissions from ships into the Arctic would accelerate melting and take away our last chance to save this region.
The Center has had some major success in fighting oil development in the Arctic, and we’re also working to curb emissions from both ships and planes. But significant worldwide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from all sources are the only way to save Arctic species’ habitat and ensure their survival.
It’s hard to fathom, but there’s even more at stake in the far North than saving imperiled Arctic animals and their ecosystem. That’s because as sea ice, whose light color reflects sunlight away from the Earth, is replaced by expanses of dark water — which absorbs the sun’s heat — one of the Earth’s natural cooling mechanisms breaks down and both the Arctic and the entire globe warm even faster. And recent science indicates that vast stores of methane are locked up in the Arctic, which — if released by warming — could dwarf previous global emissions and may already be being released by sea-ice decline. There was a sharp rise in atmospheric methane beginning in 2007. Methane is 25 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2.
The melting of the Arctic, dramatic as it is, is only an early warning of the broader climate crises that will come if we don’t act quickly. Along with broader local, national and international measures to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, saving the Arctic entails specific efforts to address more direct threats like oil development and shipping. The disappearance of sea ice and the plight of the polar bear should serve as a wake-up call to the human race. It’s not too late to reverse the trend and slow the meltdown — but that window of opportunity will slam shut in the face of continued inaction.