A Changing Arctic

What climate change and receding sea ice mean for the people, wildlife, economy, and politics of the far North

Austin Ahmasuk, a resident of Nome, Alaska, watches the horizon as an imposing white silhouette slowly emerges from the fog.

A cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, comes into view—the largest such ship to traverse the Northwest Passage, traveling from Alaska to New York during the summer of 2016. Its more than 1,700 passengers and crew equal nearly half the population of Nome, one of the ports of call on its maiden Arctic voyage.

“The Crystal Serenity is a symbol of change for people in this area,” says Ahmasuk. As the marine advocate for Kawerak, an organization working to support the indigenous tribes of the Bering Strait region, Ahmasuk is deeply concerned by the changes his people are seeing both on land and at sea.

The cruise ship may be just the tip of the iceberg. In the past, the Northwest Passage could be navigated only by ships with icebreaking capabilities, even in summer. But climate change is accelerating the opening up of the Arctic Ocean, creating access through previously ice-covered navigation routes. And warming temperatures will likely open the door not just to more cruise ships but also to more exploration for oil, gas, and minerals. The open waters of this new “blue Arctic” raise profound questions about what comes next.

The Arctic is now warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the planet. According to NOAA’s annual Arctic report card, in 2016 the average air temperature over Arctic land areas was the highest ever observed, a 6.3°F increase since 1900.

A dramatic indicator of this warming is the loss of Arctic sea ice in the summer months, with rates of loss currently exceeding 10% per decade. Declines in the area covered by ice are accompanied by a rapid thinning of the ice, with 60% of ice volume lost in 30 years.

“When I first started working in the central Arctic, most of the ice was nearly twice my height,” says Stephanie Pfirman, a 5'7" professor of environmental science at Barnard College and Columbia University. She has been studying Arctic sea ice for more than 30 years, starting with a 1980 expedition to Svalbard—a remote, northern Norwegian archipelago. In the 1980s, the average sea ice thickness in the central Arctic was about 10 feet. “Now,” Pfirman says, “it is basically down to my height.”

In September 2012, the extent of sea ice hit a record low after a particularly hot summer: 1.32 million square miles, 44% below the 1981–2010 average. And from mid-October to late November 2016, the extent of Arctic sea ice was the lowest since the satellite record began in 1979. Ice sheets on land are melting at an accelerating pace, as well, contributing directly to sea-level rise, a growing threat for coastal cities and communities worldwide.

In fact, changes occurring in the Arctic are affecting the entire planet in a profound way. As sea ice retreats and land ice melts, sunlight that would have been reflected back to space by the bright ice is instead absorbed by the ocean, warming the water and melting even more ice.

Moreover, at least 1,500 billion tons of organic carbon have been safely locked away in the frozen soils of the Arctic for thousands of years—almost twice as much as is currently in the atmosphere. As this permafrost thaws, the carbon breaks down, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and amplifying global warming.

It is now increasingly evident that Arctic warming influences weather in the more temperate zones—the mid-latitudes between the poles and the equator— where the vast majority of humanity lives. As the Arctic warms, the difference between Arctic temperatures and those of the lower latitudes is shrinking. But that temperature differential is what fuels and guides the jet stream, the fast-moving river of air high in the atmosphere that drives our weather. A weaker and “wavier” jet stream promotes more persistent weather patterns in the Northern atmosphere, which can lead to extreme, long-lasting droughts, cold spells, heat waves, flooding, and snowy winters in North America, Asia, and Europe.

“This is just one example of how the impact of a very warm Arctic is going to be felt,” says Jennifer Francis, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Rutgers University. “It’s about making weather patterns hang around longer, and this tends to lead to extreme weather events.”

“Changes in the climate system are not going to happen only in the distant future. They are already happening and affecting us,” says Francis. “We need to start doing something about it, because these impacts are big.”

Rising sea levels and the loss of land and sea ice and permafrost are already having severe impacts on Arctic communities, where ice shapes a way of life. Recently, residents of Shishmaref, an Alaskan village with a population of 600, voted to relocate the entire village because of coastal erosion that has caused houses to fall into the water.

Disappearing sea ice also raises food security concerns for Arctic people. For millennia subsistence hunters have pursued seals, walrus, and whales on the sea ice. But as the ice increasingly becomes an unsafe and unreliable hunting platform, and as unpredictable weather patterns and changing ice conditions increase the time and cost of hunting, it is harder to put food on the table. “We can’t stay out as long as we used to,” says subsistence hunter Clyde Oxereok. “Things are changing really fast.”

Oxereok was born and raised in Wales, a village of 150 people located 70 miles southwest of Shishmaref. The westernmost community on mainland North America, Wales is perched on the edge of the Bering Strait, at the intersection of the Bering and Chukchi seas.

The Bering Strait is one of the Arctic’s most biologically productive environments—a marine mammal superhighway for species such as walrus and bowhead, gray, and beluga whales. It is an important stopover site for migrating ducks, eiders, fulmars, gulls, shearwaters, and other birds. St. Lawrence Island, part of Alaska but closer to Siberia than to the Alaskan mainland, is home to 38 colonies of nesting seabirds; the largest colony numbers some 1.2 million birds.

Wales is on the front line of a changing Arctic. “When you are in Wales, the fact that you can see so much of this incredibly important ecological area reminds me how vibrant and pristine it currently is, and how we are risking all of that with human activity right now,” says Elisabeth Kruger, WWF’s Arctic and Bering Sea program officer.

“The people who live in Wales bear all the risk of what happens if a ship gets grounded in a storm,” Kruger adds, “or if there is an oil spill in the Bering Strait.”

The Shipping News

Even as ice melt opens up new shipping routes in the Arctic Ocean, the total number of vessels going through the Northwest and Northeast passages is still small when compared with other major shipping routes, such as the Panama and Suez Canals. But a 2015 report published by the US Committee on the Marine Transportation System projects 3% growth in vessel activity over the next 10 years.

In the Bering Strait region, the number of commercial ships has increased in the past few years, from 262 transits in 2009 to 452 in 2015. In June 2015, the Russian government approved an integrated plan for developing the Northern Sea Route, part of the Northeast Passage. The route is attractive: a voyage between Rotterdam and Shanghai via the Northern Sea Route is 22% shorter—by more than 2,500 miles and at least seven days—than the current route through the Suez Canal.

The Russian plan foresees a twentyfold increase in annual cargo traffic, from 4 million tons in 2014 to 80 million tons by 2030. Researchers estimate that a liquefied natural gas project launched in 2013 on Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula may result in ships navigating through the Bering Strait every 40 hours during ice-free periods, transporting gas to  Europe and Asia.

And the implications of this “new” Arctic Ocean are truly still unknown. As Alexey Knizhnikov, WWF-Russia’s extractive industry environmental policy officer, warns, “The Yamal project is only the beginning.”

Many things can go wrong in the Arctic. Increased shipping brings new risks, including disturbances to subsistence hunting practices; impacts on marine life from underwater noise, gray water, and sewage discharges; the introduction of invasive species; and oil spills. “Northerners depend on the ocean more than anybody else on the globe. If there is an oil spill, their grocery store is impacted,” says Andrew Dumbrille, WWF-Canada’s senior specialist for sustainable shipping.

Such an oil spill, if it were to occur, would be devastating. The Arctic is dark for nearly half the year, the ocean is always cold, and there is limited infrastructure and response capacity. The Coast Guard station nearest to the Bering Strait region is more than 760 miles away, on Kodiak Island.

And while vessel traffic in the Arctic is still small, an increasing number of ships are poised to operate in Arctic waters (see sidebar). The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13% of its undiscovered oil reserves.

“Even with just the current volume of traffic, we don’t have the infrastructure needed to respond to potential incidents; we do not have the ability to clean up an oil spill in Arctic waters,” says Elena Agarkova, senior program officer with WWF’s Arctic Field Program.

“When an oil spill occurs, that will be a day of utter despair for our community and the entire region,” Ahmasuk adds.

Helping to ensure safe and responsible shipping, which includes paying attention to the transport needs of the oil and gas industry, is a cornerstone of WWF’s work in the region. The recently adopted Polar Code of the International Maritime Organization—the UN agency responsible for shipping regulations—provides a new set of mandatory regulations to protect the polar regions against environmental risks from shipping. While applauding the positive steps that the Polar Code represents, WWF and other groups are advocating for additional regulations to address key issues such as invasive species and the use of heavy fuel oil (HFO).

“While the Polar Code is an important development, not enough attention was paid by the member states and stakeholders to developing strong environmental provisions,” says John Kaltenstein, a senior marine policy analyst with Friends of the Earth.

Kaltenstein’s group and WWF are calling for an end to the use of HFO in the Arctic. Considered a significant hazard to the Arctic environment, HFO is extremely difficult to clean up when spilled. And although only about 28% of vessels operating in the Arctic use HFO, it represents approximately 75% of the total bunker fuel mass of all vessels operating in the region. It has already been banned in the Antarctic.

WWF also advocates for improved oil spill response through enhanced co-operation between Arctic countries. “It is imperative that the United States and Russia continue to work with each other in the Arctic, and especially the Bering Strait region, where an oil spill could easily have cross-boundary consequences,” says Agarkova.

Since 1996, the main international forum for cooperation in the region has been the Arctic Council, which consists of representatives of eight countries—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States—as well as observers and permanent participants representing indigenous peoples. WWF has been an observer at the Council’s meetings since its inception.

Initially conceived as a scientific and environmental body, the Council in recent years has evolved; it has now assumed a more active role in ensuring implementation of the policies and recommendations its members have approved. In 2015 the Council established a Task Force on Arctic Marine Cooperation to improve governance tools, and WWF is working to ensure that effective governance remains a key priority.

“The Arctic countries had to move from study to action because they saw the increased desire and ability for economic exploitation of the Arctic and realized that they had to be responsible for good stewardship and management of Arctic resources,” explains Bill Eichbaum, WWF’s senior fellow for Arctic policy.

Eichbaum calls for Arctic countries to collectively assert a stronger strategic stewardship vision for the future of the Arctic, “almost a constitution for the Arctic,” he says. “The Arctic marine environment is still relatively pristine, and we have an opportunity for the first time to put in place the mechanisms for international cooperation and governance so that, as development happens, we don’t have the same non-sustainable patterns occur.”

The Arctic Council is a voluntary organization that can advise its members, but not require action. And no other international governance mechanism exists to effectively articulate and enforce a global consensus regarding the future of the region.

“There is no governance structure for the Arctic that has the authority necessary to make those decisions,” says Brad Ack, WWF’s senior vice president for oceans. “Action for the Arctic is action for the planet. We have come to a turning point in our understanding of this, and we can’t ignore it any longer.”

Action for the planet is action for the Arctic, as well. In December 2015, 195 nations met in Paris under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and agreed to limit greenhouse gas emissions and slow the warming of the planet.

“The Paris Agreement,” says Margaret Williams, managing director of WWF’s Arctic Program, “was a very important step. But at the same time, businesses and governments need to accelerate the meeting of these commitments.” That’s what mechanisms like the Arctic Council and the White House Arctic Science Ministerial (see “On The Docket”) are tasked with now.

“We will have to do even more,” she adds. “Science. Government. Communities. Coalitions. We all have to work together if we want to preserve some of the key functions of the Arctic.”

Preserving those key functions and protecting people and wildlife from the impacts of climate change are the top priorities of WWF’s work with local communities and Arctic nations.

Thanks in part to consistent and clear calls for protections on the part of native leaders, WWF members, and others, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a joint pledge in March 2016 to protect the Arctic from the impacts of overfishing, shipping, resource development, and climate change. In November 2016, the Obama administration removed the Beaufort and Chukchi seas from the 2017–2022 federal offshore leasing schedule.

And in December 2016, President Obama withdrew the entire Chukchi Sea and almost all of the Beaufort Sea from future offshore oil and gas drilling. Prime Minister Trudeau simultaneously announced a five-year moratorium on offshore oil development in Canadian Arctic waters. In direct response to requests from Alaska Native communities, the Obama administration also created the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area, which is designed to protect the cultural, ecological, and subsistence resources of the region.

In WWF’s view, these moves were significant steps forward in building a more resilient Arctic. But more needs to be done across the entire circumpolar region to protect ecosystems from poorly planned development, oil and gas exploration, and shipping-related risks. And while marine management areas in the region could contribute this protection, Arctic management must also be dynamic in the face of a rapidly transforming marine environment. “We’d like to see a future Arctic Ocean with a well-planned and yet flexible network of protected areas that bolster resilience to climate change and support access to food resources—for subsistence communities and wildlife alike,” says Williams.

WWF is also collaborating with the US Coast Guard to designate places of special ecological significance that ships should avoid entirely. This work builds on the Coast Guard’s proposal for ships to use specified routes in the Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait, and Bering Sea. Meanwhile, WWF-Canada is educating mariners about sensitive areas and wildlife, and in Russia, WWF is advising the Ministry of Environment on which marine and coastal areas, including wildlife-rich regions of the Bering Strait, merit special conservation action.

Around the Bering Strait, communities are adapting to climate change in new ways. In recent years, the disappearance of sea ice has forced polar bears onto land—and close to villages—more frequently. To reduce conflicts between bears and people, the village of Wales has established a polar bear patrol to scare bears away from kids walking to and from school.

“The patrol is a good example of community resilience,” says WWF’s Kruger, who helped the bear patrol get started. “The Inupiat people have survived harsh Arctic conditions for millennia. It’s time for the rest of the world to step up.”


On the Docket

In September 2016, the first-ever White House Arctic Science Ministerial convened ministers of science, chief science advisors, and other high-level officials from around the world, as well as representatives from indigenous groups from the Arctic, to expand collaboration in the Arctic.

In the lead-up to the ministerial, WWF, the Columbia Climate Center, Woods Hole Research Center, and Arctic 21 joined together to share their knowledge of the science and policy implications of the Arctic’s changing temperatures. The group explored scientific, programmatic, and governance scenarios that might guide united action in the uncharted territory of a changed Arctic. Recommendations based on those scenarios include the following:

  1. Enhance national and international efforts to understand and project Arctic climate and ice-cover scenarios.
  2. Create a platform to foster broadly inclusive multinational, multistakeholder dialogues about the future of the Arctic, so that multiple perspectives and priorities are understood.
  3. Dedicate resources to helping communities, countries, and international parties adapt to the changing climate, with a focus on both soft infrastructure (such as building codes and relocation assistance) and hard infrastructure (such as ports and roads).
  4. Integrate and expand Arctic observation systems to seamlessly integrate scientific research, the needs of Arctic peoples, and early warning systems of value to all Arctic nations.
  5. Reduce the ongoing growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere globally, by means of mechanisms such as the Paris Agreement and new technologies.
  6. Unify Arctic voices in support of the measures above, and promote measures that keep the Arctic’s vital places intact.

Explore More

World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

View all issues