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Breaking the Cycle

WWF advocates for a solution in the battle against Arctic warming

polar bear Svalbard Arctic

Black carbon’s impact on sea ice is felt by many Arctic species, such as polar bears and walrus.

The amount of ice covering the Arctic Ocean’s surface has reached its lowest point this year. It is not a record breaker; that happened last year. But the extent of sea ice is at a level now that scientists thought it would not be at until 2050.

These areas of frozen ocean are an essential part of the Arctic landscape. Polar bears need it for hunting, walruses for resting, people for fishing. These Arctic inhabitants are adapted to the ice’s normal seasonal patterns of melting and refreezing, but this overall declining trend is problematic.

Why is the ice melting so quickly? We all know about carbon dioxide’s role in climate change, but recent studies have revealed another big player: black carbon.

Ever noticed a layer of black dust inside your fireplace? That’s soot, or black carbon, and it’s produced when wood burns. Black carbon is also produced by burning fuel. A lot of the carbon ends up in the atmosphere. Eventually, those particles settle on the ground and can be very damaging.

walrus in laptev

This year, lack of sea ice forced nearly 4,000 walruses to crowd onto the shore of the Chukchi Sea.

The problem of ship emissions

In the Arctic, diesel-burning ships produce black carbon, which settles on snow and ice. The particles absorb sunlight and accelerate melting. Black carbon is the second biggest contributor to melting sea ice in the Arctic, next to increased carbon dioxide levels.

More melting of sea ice leads to more open water in the Arctic. This creates more opportunities for shipping. More vessels then lead to more black carbon emissions. And more black carbon causes more ice melting—a dangerous cycle affecting the people and wildlife, such as polar bears and walrus, that depend on sea ice for survival.

There is a way to stop it, though

We can reduce black carbon emissions through regulations on shipping vessels that pass through Arctic waters. There are technologies that can be applied to clean the soot coming out of engines.

WWF is advocating for such regulations and urging them to be adopted as part of a code for Arctic shipping. In the coming months there will be meetings of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN agency responsible for ship safety and marine pollution prevention. WWF, as part of a broader Arctic coalition of partners, is pushing the IMO to create black carbon regulations.

Reducing black carbon on shipping vessels in the Arctic will have immediate impact on the ground in the Arctic and is an effective way to reduce warming in the region.

WWF also advocates for other regulations related to shipping in the Arctic. The need for WWF to do so was driven home this month, when an oil tanker collided with an ice floe in the Russian Arctic. The incident happened in the Northern Sea Route, which has seen a large increase in shipping traffic since the ice began to melt at a rapid rate several years ago.

Arctic wildlife and people need such solutions to ensure a future for their sea ice world. As we approach the sea ice minimum next year, hopefully we have taken steps to break the black carbon cycle.

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