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Green Transition: America’s Arctic and the Circumpolar Arctic

Chuck Clusen

Posted November 25, 2008 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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The Arctic Region Is under Assault by Global Warming

The Arctic region of our earth is undergoing disastrous warming.  The Arctic ice pack now shrinks to roughly half the size it had historically.  While this year's ice pack decreased to 2.03 million square miles, larger than last year's record small size of 1.59 million square miles (according the National Snow and Ice Data Center), this year both the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific over North America and the Northern Route over Siberia were simultaneously open.  Further, ice thickness has also decreased by approximately half. 

Northern Alaska, America's portion of the Arctic, has warmed 4oF in the last 50 years-about double of temperate areas.  Autumn temperatures in the Arctic are at a record 5oC (9oF) above the past normal.  Due to the major loss of sea ice in recent years in summer less energy is reflected back into space from the ice pack allowing more solar heating of the ocean water which is then released into the atmosphere during fall cooling.  This has created a feedback phenomenon that has become a domino effect which is accelerating the warming in the Arctic far more than in other regions.   Scientists now think that the Arctic ice pack could disappear entirely in summer within 5 to 10 years.

Similarly the sea level is rising.  According to the BBC World News data from the Siberia Seas show a rate of sea level rise of approximately 2.61 mm/year over the last 50 years.  The National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration reports that summer snow melting in Greenland has significantly increased-as much a 18 days longer than previous maximum values.  This certainly could increase the rate of rising sea level.  The smaller ice pack further into the fall and the rising seas have created a situation where fall storms now erode coastlines more rapidly and threaten coastal villages.

The plight of the polar bear has received significant attention.  The polar bear uses the ice pack as a hunting platform to hunt ice seals.  As the ice pack season shortens and the remaining ice pack in summer becomes smaller the polar bear's ability to survive is increasingly threatened.   Fortunately, the polar bear has been listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, but unless bold action is taken immediately to combat global warming and protect the Arctic region we could loose our polar bears by mid-century or before. Pacific Walrus which require the ice pack as a resting platform and the ice seals which depend on the ice pack to create their unique under ice habitat are also in danger.

Additional Threats to the Arctic Creating Insult to Injury

If the climate related impacts were not enough industrial development is also threatening the Arctic.  In Alaska the oil and gas development that started at Prudhoe Bay forty years ago has now moved east, west, south and into the Arctic Ocean.  The State of Alaska and the Federal government have sold oil and gas leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas of the Arctic Ocean-often referred to as the Polar Bear Seas.  Norway is moving its oil operations north into Arctic waters and Canada and Russia are both pursuing new oil and gas prospects further north.  The opening of the ice for longer periods raises the prospect of major shipping routes crossing the Arctic in the not too distant future.  Russia and Canada are dedicated to enlarging and using their ice-breaker fleets to facilitate such shipping.  Fisheries are also moving north such as the Atlantic cod and the Pacific Pollock.  All these industrial activities create new and greater exploitation, industrial pollution and major impacts on indigenous fish and wildlife off-shore and on-shore.  Seismic work can be disrupting to various species of whales migrating such as the endangered Bowhead which indigenous people depend on for subsistence. There is no effective technology to clean up oil spills from drilling or ships in broken ice waters.  The Arctic which is the last frontier could be developed and despoiled in a mere generation. 

Despite these enormous threats in the Arctic there are opportunities if we seize them.  Due to the attention paid to the plight of the polar bear and other marine mammals we have an opportunity to spotlight serious attention onto the Arctic and push the adoption of a "precautionary" approach to all Arctic development.  The election of the Obama administration presents a large opportunity to pursue the protection of the Arctic both domestically and internationally.

What We and the Obama Administration Must Do

The discussion above shows why we must seriously address global warming in a bold, comprehensive and mandatory fashion domestically and internationally (see Climate and Energy Transition Paper).  But, we must address the Arctic itself as well with a bold and precautionary conservation action plan.  Fortunately, the Obama administration was elected at the critical time and in time when we can still do it right in the Arctic.  There are three items that we must work with the Obama administration to do.  First, is to develop a comprehensive Arctic conservation and energy plan for America's Arctic based on a full scientific assessment of the health, biodiversity, and functioning of the Arctic ecosystem.  This plan would guide any industrial activities if, when, where and how they may be permitted in the Arctic.  Second, there must be a time-out.  All new industrial activities in the Arctic must be prohibited including new oil and gas leasing, oil and gas activities in priority conservation areas off-shore and on-shore on existing leases until a thorough scientific assessment is completed and a comprehensive plan is put into place.  And third, initiate negotiations with all Arctic nations to develop a framework environmental convention that implements an integrated, ecosystem-based management approach to managing new and expanded industrial activity to the circumpolar Arctic region.

Domestically we must not only take bold action to conserve the resources under the jurisdiction of the United States, but we must become the world's Arctic leader to lead the other seven Arctic nations (Canada, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia).   The Obama administration must adopt a precautionary policy for Arctic development domestically, but also urge the other Arctic nations to follow this new American policy.   Without the U.S. doing the right time at home we will not have the necessary credibility with the other Arctic nations.

Since the Arctic governmental roles are split among several different Federal agencies and departments President Obama should create a task force of the appropriate agencies to develop the conservation and energy plan for the Arctic with the Secretary of the Interior as chair.  This conservation and energy plan must be a high priority for President Obama immediately following Inauguration.

Numerous on-shore studies, reports and recommendations over a long period of time have shown that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain should be designated Wilderness by the Congress.  President Obama should strongly recommend Wilderness to the Congress and urge them to act on it soon. He should also seriously consider designating the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge as a national monument providing the area with the strongest possible protection.  This would effectively take the Arctic Refuge out of the discussion of any energy measure.  Further, the Obama administration should withdraw the Teshekpuk Lake area from potential oil and gas leasing and strongly recommend the area to Congress for permanent protection.  The Secretary of the Interior should also review other potential areas of the Western Arctic for permanent protection.  Another high priority immediate item for the in-coming Obama administration is to have the new Administer of the Environmental Protection Agency regulate black carbon in the Arctic which is significantly exacerbating the warming by absorbing sunlight.  Black carbon emissions in the Arctic come from use of diesel engines, oil and gas flaring and marine transport.

If the Obama administration takes strong action in the Arctic it will demonstrate its commitment to a balanced energy program and its concern for the Arctic region being the ground zero of global warming impacts.  The Bush administration is leaving a huge mess created by their "drill, baby, drill" philosophy and programs.  Starting with the infamous Cheney energy plan the Bush administration has spread oil and gas leasing across the North Slope and across the Polar Bear Seas.  The Bush administration expedited and cut corners with environmental reviews leaving the analysis incomplete and inadequate which is resulting in multiple and cumulative impacts across America's Arctic.  The Obama administration can demonstrate its commitment to building a sustainable energy plan for America and aggressively dealing with global warming by moving quickly to slow the assault on the Arctic until the necessary science is completed, a comprehensive conservation and energy plan for the Arctic is developed and implemented.  In the meantime the Secretary of the Interior must use his authority to cancel new lease sales.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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