The Arctic may be one of the most ecologically significant and productive places on earth, yet the Arctic environment remains vulnerable to conservation threats, and the growth of economic activity has given rise to concern of environmental impact. Climate change has already begun reforming the Arctic’s biodiversity and geography. The Arctic’s shrinking sea ice has already had great impact on the Arctic.
As discussed further on our wildlife page, shrinking ice has led to the increased and extended visitation by orca whales, who are better able to navigate the more open waters. The greater amounts of orcas impacts other wildlife lower on the food chain and threatens the role of the polar bear as the top Arctic predator.
Polar bears have even more to worry about, as shrinking sea ice means polar bears have a greater difficulty catching enough seals to make it through their winter fast. Further, the polar bears’ range of habitat has continually drifted south along with the shifting sea ice, bringing them into closer contact with both new prey species and humans.
ENVIRONMENTAL OPPORTUNITIES AND FUTURE CHALLENGES
There are some benefits to the shrinking sea ice, however—for humans. Increased development remains vital to northern communities seeking economic growth. Shipping routes throughout the Northwest Passage have an easier time traveling through open waterways, and the tourism industry also benefits from easier passage.
Moving forward, the Arctic’s conservation future lies in seeking balance between conserving significant ecosystems and creating sustainable economic and energy solutions. Whether that be by supporting renewable energy sources, building sustainable fisheries, working with local communities to protect habitats and reduce the risk of gas and oil developments, or securing protected areas and conservation management programs, there also lies great environmental potential in the Arctic.
One pervasive threat is air pollution. In particular, the Arctic experiences ice fog, where particles and small ice crystals are trapped by the Arctic’s temperature inversion within the lower atmosphere, thus producing a shimmering effect and low visibility.
One continued area of concern has been the damage created by ships. In the past, exploratory or even whaling ships have left behind debris or various detritus; however, these leftovers were largely organic in nature. Now, tankers traversing the Arctic in the course of offshore drilling find themselves faced with the hazard of ice-filled waters. where damage can cause serious environmental damage with oil spills or even sunken nuclear-powered ships. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 remains a major example of this environmental threat. Over the course of three days, around 11 million gallons of oil gushed into the ocean, killing a multitude of marine and wildlife and causing socio-environmental felt to this day.
Terrestrially, oil and gas fields as well as opencut mining, road building and even heavy vehicle traffic can disrupt the susceptible Arctic environment in ways we may not even know yet.