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Is this the kind of Arctic you want, cross-crossed by shipping, complete with oil rigs, mining, industrial fishing and pollution? If not, get behind the Arctic Declaration! Photo: epsdave via Pixabay.
Is this the kind of Arctic you want, cross-crossed by shipping, complete with oil rigs, mining, industrial fishing and pollution? If not, get behind the Arctic Declaration! Photo: epsdave via Pixabay.
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We must keep the Arctic clean, wild and free!

Professor Robert Spicer

17th November 2014

The Arctic is a special place, teeming with life, but it is under threat like never before, writes Robert Spicer - not just from climate change, but from oil drilling, industrial fishing and shipping, as receding ice creates now commercial opportunities. We must designate an Arctic Sanctuary where nature can reign undisturbed.

It's a cruel anomaly that the Arctic Ocean, a place of such unexplored biology, unimaginable history and so central to our survival, is the least protected, and yet the most vulnerable.

Around 70 million years ago forests grew to within a few hundred miles of the North Pole and would have covered the pole if there had been land there.

Most of the trees were conifers, tens of metres tall, which shed their leaves in the dark winters. Ferns, horsetails and herbaceous flowering plants covered the ground below. Dinosaurs roamed these forests, alongside insects, turtles, birds and many invertebrates.

The warmest summer month averaged close to 15°C, while winter temperatures hovered around freezing. Back then, sea levels would have been at least 60 meters higher than today. A lot has changed.

Exploring the Arctic

I first visited our modern Arctic nearly 40 years ago with the US Geological Survey. My mission was to collect plant fossils and learn about the Arctic's climatic past.

As a young scientist I was used to travelling, but the Arctic was like no other place I'd experienced. On the coast sea ice would pile up against the beaches with an onshore wind, a reminder of the uniqueness of the Arctic Ocean. I was struck by the vastness of the territory and my first experience of the freedom that comes with unblemished isolation.

But it was only when I next returned, a decade later, that I felt I began to really understand the Arctic proper.

Over six weeks, I travelled on a small boat towards the heart of the Alaskan Arctic. Back then the upper reaches of the Colville River were crystal clear and the water, scooped in a cupped hand over the side of the boat, was the sweetest water you can imagine.

The wind across the tundra and the rippling of the river were the only sounds - there was no industrial invasion of oil rigs and ships at that time. I soon realised I was an intruder in the realm of the bear, the fox and the wolf. You tread lightly, aware of all that is around you, and that way you see more.

You learn to respect the environment because your wellbeing depends on it. In reality of course we all depend on the wellbeing of the Arctic at all times - we just don't realise it.

The future of the Arctic

The fossil leaves and skeletal remains I found on those and subsequent visits to Alaska and Northern Russia tell of a different Arctic to the one I experienced; a much warmer Arctic.

But my research can tell us a lot about our future as well as our past. It reveals the potential magnitude of future change as our planet warms.

It's not inconceivable the forests I described could return in our not-too distant future. The Arctic is the most warming-sensitive place on our planet, barring some smaller sections of the Antarctic. Whenever global climate warms or cools the changes are felt most strongly at the poles.

Global temperatures have already begun to rise because of man-made climate change. The Arctic is melting fast, weakening the Arctic's protective cooling effect on the earth. And as the Arctic permafrost disintegrates it will release vast amounts of methane, accelerating the warming process.

If all this seems a long way off - it's not! A few years ago it was thought it would take centuries to make the Arctic Ocean ice-free in summer. It now looks like commercial shipping could be using the northern route routinely in just a couple of decades.

This also means that the threat of serious sea level rise is more imminent than we thought. While the loss of sea ice does not lead directly to rising sea levels, it tells us rapid mass-wasting of ice caps will drive rising sea levels quicker than anticipated, drowning coastal cities, forcing mass migration and greatly polluting the oceans.

A great wilderness at risk from industrialisation

We can't prevent climate change now - it's already happening - but we can try to limit its magnitude. As part of this, we must protect special places like the Arctic from the corruptive forces that would try to exploit its decline and increase the pace of its destruction.

It's a cruel anomaly that the Arctic Ocean, a place of such unexplored biology, unimaginable history and so central to our survival, is the least protected, and yet the most vulnerable.

As the Arctic melts, the international waters of the central Arctic Ocean are opening up to oil exploration, to ship traffic, and to large-scale industrial fishing.

And if we allow this, we will degrade the Arctic ecosystem even more, compromising the ability of planetary adjustment that has occurred in the past.

The central Arctic Ocean may seem like a harsh and desolate place, but it is in fact teeming with life that exists nowhere else on Earth. Arctic and sub-Arctic waters are among the most biologically sensitive in the world.

Bathed in sunlight 24 hours a day in the summer months, the Arctic is alive with ice-dependent mammals including polar bears, seals, walrus and whales, as well as vast numbers of seabirds. It is also home to huge shoals of fish, while sponge gardens and cold water corals cover the ocean floor, but we know very little about these hitherto inaccessible ecosystems.

Preserving the Arctic sea ice

The presence of sea ice in the Arctic forms the foundation of a unique marine food chain.

The smallest microorganisms and zooplankton survive specifically on the underside of the ice, and are consumed by Arctic cod. These are eaten by seals, which in turn are the staple food for polar bears.

Seals also use the ice to give birth and nurse their young. Polar bears, the unique and iconic predator of the Arctic, roam the sea ice; it is their home. All of this is now at risk from human activities such as oil drilling, industrial fishing, shipping and seabed mining.

To invite big business into the Arctic, before we have even begun to understand the marine ecosystems that have evolved under ice cover, is wilfully destructive and regressive.

And the science of climate change shows beyond any doubt that we cannot afford to burn all the fossil fuels we have already found. We do not need to risk the Arctic environment to discover and exploit yet more reserves. Future generations will think us mad for even considering it.

Creating an Arctic Sanctuary

The Antarctic Treaty was a beacon of hope. It showed we could protect that place for research and future generations. Sadly detractors are eternally jockeying to weaken the current protection, yet it remains defended. The best way now to protect both poles would be for the Arctic to be similarly protected.

I am one of thousands of scientists, politicians and cultural leaders to put my name to the creation of an Arctic Sanctuary around the North Pole by signing the Arctic Declaration. It calls for protection of the Arctic and its unique wildlife from the onslaught of oil drilling, shipping and industrial fishing.

And already more than six million ordinary people from around the world have joined the Save the Arctic movement.

Sealing such a deal requires global political will, but it is not an impossible, as renewed Antarctic protection has already shown us. And the international community is responding.

There is still time left to protect the Arctic, but not much. If, as a species, we are able to accomplish this one difficult, but not impossible task, then we may just learn to live within our means before we have no options left.

 


 

Action: Greenpeace is facilitating signatories to the Arctic Declaration; public figures who wish to speak up as influential voices for Arctic protection. Please help - More information at www.arcticdeclaration.org.

Professor Robert Spicer has been at the Open University since 1994 when he took up a Chair and became Head of Earth Sciences. Until recently he was Director of the Centre for Earth, Planetary Space and Astronomical Research (CEPSAR) at the OU. He has published well over 100 journal articles and made numerous radio and TV appearances. He was a Co-PI on the public participation climate modelling initiative Climateprediction.net and has collaborated on modelling past and future warm climates. His current main research interest is the 'Lost World of the Cretaceous Arctic'. This reconstructs the vegetation and climate near the North Pole during times of previous global warmth.

 

 

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