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Record Melt of Sea Ice Leaves Arctic Vulnerable to Rapid Development

Lisa Speer

Posted August 29, 2012 in Reviving the World's Oceans, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, Solving Global Warming

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Sea ice in the Arctic thawed to a record low this past weekend, with even further declines expected in coming weeks  As scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center confirmed, the extent of sea ice in the Arctic fell to the lowest point we’ve seen since recording began in 1979. The rapid disappearance of summer sea ice threatens ice-dependent species and ecosystems, along with the people who depend on them. And we may soon see insult added to injury in this fragile region if new industrial development, made possible by the loss of ice, isn’t managed properly.

 Since 1979, scientists have measured sea ice in the Arctic via satellites. Each fall, as temperatures drop, the ice grows significantly, retreating back during the summer months. This sea ice provides critical habitat for endangered and threatened species, including polar bears, whales, seals, and birds. The ice also plays a critical role in regulating our climate—its bright, white surface reflects the sun’s light, helping to keep the planet cool.

 But Arctic sea ice is no match for global warming. With melting likely to continue into September, we’ve already seen summer sea ice levels drop below their previous record low, set back in 2007.

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

 As the white ice melts away, it is replaced by darker ocean water, which absorbs heat and causes the remaining ice to melt even faster. This feedback loop may mean that summer sea ice may disappear completely much sooner than scientists had predicted, possibly by the end of this decade. 

The loss of summer sea ice spells doom for ice dependent species and ecosystems. And with the cap of ice dwindling, Big Oil, shipping, and other industries have now set their sights on the Arctic as a new source for profit.

 The risks of ocean industries—including oil spills, invasive species, pollution, and disruptive underwater noise—are problematic in any region. But in the fragile Arctic, they could easily spell disaster. Just imagine trying to contain and clean up a major oil spill or ship disaster in the face of raging ice storms, blinding fog, darkness for months at a time, and hurricane-force winds. All that with the Coast Guard stationed a painful 1,000 miles away. It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen.

 Luckily, we are seeing some progress made among governments to protect the Arctic from coming industrial threats. But much remains to be done.

 The United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark, Greenland, Finland and other nations are currently negotiating an agreement to address oil spill preparedness and response in the region. While the agreement is a step forward, it remains very weak, doing little more than improving communications in the event of a spill. It does nothing to address how governments and Big Oil might better prevent spills in the Arctic, nor does it materially improve our ability to contain and clean up spilled oil under brutal Arctic conditions. A much stronger focus on preventing spills in the first place is critically important, and NRDC is working with other groups to push such efforts forward.

 Also in the United States, the Department of the Interior recently announced a new process to identify ecologically and culturally important areas in the Arctic. This is the first step toward rational, integrated management of the various industrial activities affecting the same Arctic ecosystem. As such, this is a major step forward.

 As I’ve stressed before, protecting the Arctic Ocean—our final ocean frontier—is our last and best chance to get oceans management right. Time and time again, we’ve sacrificed our ocean resources to poorly managed industrial development, leading to collapsing fisheries, massive dead zones, and destroyed habitats. Now, as melting sea ice in the Arctic sets the stage for major new development, it’s up to government leaders throughout the Arctic to ensure that this critical region doesn’t suffer the same fate.

We need to move forward quickly to protect key habitats from damaging industrial activity, and ensure that where development does take place, it is subject to the strictest controls.  There's a lot to do. And even less time to do it as record breaking ice loss becomes the norm. 

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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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