America's Arctic Ocean is home to bowhead whales, walruses, ice seals, polar bears, and other marine mammals found nowhere else in the country. As a new Pew Environment Group video shows, these iconic animals, along with millions of migratory birds, thrive in this remote, extreme, and fragile region.
These species hold a special place in our national imagination, even among people who have never visited the Far North. Policy decisions currently under consideration by the White House will be crucial to our nation's ability to responsibly manage these vulnerable and irreplaceable areas in the years and decades ahead.
Home on the Ice
Arctic animals are uniquely adapted to living on and around sea ice. In the Chukchi Sea off northwest Alaska, for example, walrus mothers and calves typically use sea ice near shore as a resting platform from which they reach food on the shallow ocean floor. Polar bears live along the sea ice edge, going from floe to floe in search of prey.
In recent years, large numbers of walruses have begun hauling out on land, where they are more likely to be disturbed by humans and other animals, leading to stampedes that crush their babies. Polar bears have been forced to swim wide swaths of open waters, which can be deadly for new cubs and even some adults.
As if increasing temperatures weren't stressful enough, the loss of year-round sea ice is also opening the door to oil and gas exploration, as well as vessel traffic. Marine mammals already struggling to adapt are facing new threats from air and water pollution, noise, and ship strikes. Even a moderate oil spill could undermine fragile food webs and ruin critical habitat.
Yet the Obama administration is on the brink of approving oil industry plans to drill the first exploration wells in the biologically rich Chukchi Sea in over 20 years, and the first Arctic exploration in the Beaufort Sea since the tragic Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010.
Many questions remain about the ability to drill safely or respond to a spill in extreme conditions. Despite serious shortcomings in response capability shown during the Deepwater Horizon spill, no new response standards or regulations have been adopted, let alone developed specifically for the Arctic. In addition, the government's own scientists say that large gaps remain in our understanding of the Arctic marine ecosystem. The federal government needs to fill these gaps before it can make science-based decisions on if, when, where, and how drilling should take place.
Americans who care about this unique ecosystem and its spectacular wildlife should urge President Obama to show responsible leadership in the U.S. Arctic Ocean as the region faces the twin challenges of a changing climate and unprecedented commercial development. In particular, the federal government should:
- Put ecologically sensitive areas off-limits to offshore oil and gas activities so marine mammals, already stressed by a rapid decline of summer sea ice, will retain vital habitat.
- Require industry to have strict oil spill prevention and response plans that have been tested to work in hurricane-force winds, sub-zero temperatures, shifting ice, high seas, long periods of fog and darkness, and other extreme Arctic conditions.
- Develop a long-term research and monitoring plan to fill science gaps and guide conservation and development decisions.
Arctic offshore development must be done safely and sustainably. Until the highest standards are in place, the best plan is to defer all new exploration.
Follow Marilyn Heiman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PewEnvironment