Fill the Gaps in Arctic Science Before We Decide on Drilling

Last week, the US Geological Survey released a report that outlines gaps in science that must be filled in order to make wise choices about oil and gas development in America's Arctic -- specifically, in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The bottom line is that we have the opportunity to do things right in Arctic waters, but only if we take the time to understand this extraordinary and fragile part of our national and natural heritage. At stake are a unique and exceptionally productive ecosystem and the subsistence way of life in Arctic coastal communities.

The Arctic is already under great stress. It is warming at twice the rate as the rest of the planet, and some of the consequences for ecosystem functions and human communities are already apparent. Loss of ice -- habitat for polar bears, walruses, and ice-dependent seals -- is already threatening them. Coastal villages face danger from coastal erosion and potential loss of subsistence hunting opportunities. We should heed the USGS report instead of simply adding new stresses without understanding their implications.

The report underscores the need for geological, biological and other environmental information for the Arctic in order to understand what is at risk and whether oil and gas drilling can proceed safely in specific areas. Even a quick perusal of this report reveals a long list of science -- from new field studies to synthesis of existing information -- that is needed to inform decisions about oil and gas activity in Arctic waters. Until this work is conducted, peer reviewed by other scientists, and considered by the public, there is no responsible basis to move forward on new oil and gas activities in Arctic waters.

The report describes "a critical need" for large-scale studies that synthesize the results from the full range of existing studies that have examined the Arctic.

"relatively little is known about the Arctic in large part because many of the studies are targeted in focus and independently conducted with limited synthesis, even within studies on the same topics... there also is a need for some very specific research to address the identified science gaps . . . ." (p. 218).

The report's significance is clear: We need a comprehensive Arctic research program to promote informed decision-making on oil and gas activities and to measure and monitor impacts on Arctic ecological resources. The necessary work can begin now, and it can be conducted within a reasonable period of time. With that information in hand, we can make no-regrets choices for our Arctic seas.