Threats to the Arctic
While the Arctic is a remote place, towns with infrastructure are now established in Alaska and beyond. When not thoughtfully executed, industry and economic development can conflict with the conservation of Alaska’s native wildlife and its habitat.
The Arctic holds some of the world’s largest undeveloped oil reserves. This has put one of Alaska’s most vital refuges in peril: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1960 under President Eisenhower, is threatened by oil interests pushing to drill in and near the refuge.
Unfortunately, Alaska has had major oil spills in the past. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, dumping between 260,000 and 750,000 barrels of oil into the sea. And in 2006, a pipeline in Prudhoe Bay leaked up to 267,000 gallons of oil over two acres of land. More recently, Shell Oil has made failed attempts to drill in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. Exploring for oil and gas in this region, whether on land or in the ocean, is challenging. Violent storms, 40-foot sea swells, and winter darkness and frozen conditions increase the risk of a spill and make cleanup even more difficult to address. At present there are no proven oil spill cleanup technologies for spills in arctic sea ice, and the nearest Coast Guard station is a thousand miles away.
Climate change poses the greatest danger to the Arctic and its wildlife. Rising temperatures cause the polar ice caps to melt earlier in spring and re-form slower in autumn, making it harder for polar bears to hunt and obtain enough food for their cubs. As more sea ice melts, there is less of it to reflect the sun’s energy back into space. Instead, the dark seawater absorbs the sunlight, warming the ocean. This phenomenon is called the “albedo effect.”
On the tundra, climate change spells trouble for different species in different ways. Arctic foxes, well adapted to snow and ice, face greater competition from red foxes in the boreal forests further south. As brown bears move northward, polar bears are increasingly competing with them for food. And lemmings depend on thick snowpack for insulation and protection from predators in winter. Less snow could reduce the lemming population, pulling the rug out from under the tundra food chain.
Finally, warmer seas are changing the range and seasonal cycles of Arctic fisheries. Some fish are swimming in deeper, cooler waters, while others are changing their migration patterns and moving northward. This affects whales, seal, walrus, polar bears, sea birds and fishing industries in multiple countries. For example, the Bering Sea Alaska pollock fishery may move northwest because of warming waters and fewer fish. With an annual harvest around 1 million tons, Alaska pollock is the United States’ largest fishery and one of the most economically valuable fisheries in the world. The loss of pollock means less prey for seabirds, whales and marine mammals too.