THURSDAY 7TH MARCH, 6PM, PARKINSON B.08
The Arctic is home to a diverse array of plants and animals. They are adapted in various ways to a region that is often cold, experiences prolonged daylight in summer and equally lengthy darkness in winter and includes habitats that range from ice caps to wetlands to deserts, from ponds to rivers to the ocean. Some of the Arctic’s species are iconic, such as the polar bear, while others are more obscure, with many yet endemic and found only in this region.
Arctic peoples, too, have adapted to this environment, living off the land and sea in keeping with the cycles of the seasons and the great migrations of birds, mammals and fish. These migratory cycles and ocean currents connect the Arctic physically with every region of the planet. Hence, the consequences of disruption of the Arctic ecosystem can also be felt the world over; from greater flooding in Bangladesh and the sinking of the Maldives to persistently colder winters in the UK and USA and a runaway increase in global temperatures as the runaway greenhouse effect could take hold. This would result in not only the indigenous Arctic peoples losing their homes, but also much of the southern hemisphere could become inhospitable, with people in developing nations being disproportionately affected.
The fight to save the Arctic is heating up. The northernmost region is already the most impacted by climate change and rising global temperatures than any other place in the world. And as if the impacts of climate change weren’t enough, international oil companies have invested in exploiting the oil that lies deep in Arctic waters. This will not only further the effect of climate change as these fuels are utilised and their greenhouse gases released later in their lifecycle, but the extraction of these fuels itself threatens the fragile and immature arctic ecosystem.
The pressures to extract these fuel resources will not decrease in the future, in fact as other sources are depleted, more transnational oil companies and states will look favourably on extraction of fuel from beneath the arctic shelf, where there is a reported 90 billion barrels of oil and 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (US Geological Survey, 2008) making up an estimated 22% of the unexploited fossil fuels on Earth. In addition to these valuable resources, the arctic is home to rich fish stocks and the overfishing at lower latitudes as well as rising temperatures is driving cod and halibut into the Arctic ocean.
Previously, the Arctic was relatively invulnerable to the exploitation of its fisheries and fossil fuel deposits as large ice shelves made much of the region impassable to the large commercial shipping and prospecting vessels. However, as global sea temperatures rise and the ice retreats further back than ever before, new routes for commercial vessels have opened through the Arctic. Thus, the Arctic is now at risk of potential human exploitation on a unprecedented level.
As hinted previously, the Arctic ice shelves are in retreat as the ocean temperatures increase (a direct result of human-induced climate change) though there are many more threats both biotic and abiotic in nature to the Arctic. These threats include the full range of stressors known from other parts of the world, namely habitat loss and fragmentation from non-sustainable infrastructure and industrial development, chemical pollution, climate change and invasive species infestations. These pressures are mainly globally driven, as a result the Arctic states cannot be tasked with righting the issues alone.
The true value and risk of the Arctic ecosystem has recently been globally recognised, with the US, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Japan, South Korea, China and the EU signing the Central Arctic Ocean agreement to restrict fishing in the newly exposed ocean for 16 years. Though representatives of the UNEP and Arctic Council see this as key progress towards protecting the region, they recognise that negotiations are taking too long, often occluded by arguments of sovereignty over the region, and recommend that agreements to protect this important ecosystem from local and global threats be made a matter of priority.