Friday is World Oceans Day and Alaskans can celebrate by honoring one of nature's most spectacular events -- the great migration of animals traveling into the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic Ocean is home to an unusual abundance of wildlife. Consistent and extensive polynyas -- stretches of open water surrounded by sea ice -- create pathways into the Arctic for bowhead whales, seals and birds seeking to take advantage of the explosion of productivity created by constant daylight.
I was lucky to witness some of this incredible migration last spring. As I stood on the edge of the sea ice offshore of Point Barrow, I marveled at the abundance of wildlife. Animals passed in waves that I could only imagine must be comparable to the herds of Africa's Serengeti. Thousands of common and king eiders and black guillemots streamed overhead. I watched some of the more than 10,000 bowheads pass by this point. Soon, beluga whales, bearded seals and orcas would join them.
For millennia, this great migration of marine mammals and seabirds has been a part of the Inupiat subsistence culture. Now, however, the ever-increasing pressure of industrialization in America's Arctic is putting these animal migrations and those dependent on them at risk. Shipping and proposed offshore drilling activities will bring new pollution to the Arctic. Even in the absence of a catastrophic accident, ships and platforms will discharge waste into the ocean through which whales, seals and other marine mammals swim, birds dive and small life forms filter. Heavy diesel smoke will be released into the air and methane will be burned off. This pollution would be released into a system also threatened by climate change, ocean acidification and pollution from other activities.
The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet and the minimum sea ice cover in 2011 tied the previous record low. The Arctic Ocean is becoming more acidic, which puts at risk creatures, like clams and some plankton, that have calcium-based shells. These creatures form the base of the Arctic food web. Additionally, pollutants like mercury, emitted from industrial activities at lower latitudes, are carried into the Arctic, where they enter Arctic food chains and accumulate in bigger animals like polar bears.
Despite these risks, choices have been made to allow these industrial activities without fully understanding the impacts they may have. The recent United States Geological Survey (USGS) report on Arctic science documented large scientific information gaps about the Arctic ecosystem. The report states in the summary that:
"There is a critical need for large-scale synoptic efforts that synthesize the many different studies on the full range of topics by the numerous researchers and organizations examining the Arctic. However, there also is a need for some very specific research to address the identified science gaps ."
This missing information, however, has not been a deterrent; oil companies like Shell Oil have stated that they will fill in large missing gaps with research once production starts. We should insist that before large-scale industrial activities are allowed, a plan is in place that ensures that those activities can occur without harming the health of this incredible ocean. That plan must be based on good science and preparedness. It must identify important cultural and ecological areas and what is needed to protect them. Looking before we leap is the best way to make sure the great migration and those dependent on it survive the changes coming to the Arctic.
Thus far, we have not been willing to stop and look. Politics and industry profits have been given priority over our ocean resources. This approach is like allowing industrial activities in the Serengeti without knowing when and where the wildebeest, elephants, giraffes and zebras migrate and how they might be impacted by those activities. The fact that we can't watch the great migration in the Arctic Ocean does not mean we have any less reason to stop, do the necessary research and plan to ensure that industrial activities can be compatible with the health of this important region.
A fourth-generation Alaskan, Will Race is a University of Montana ecology major and the Pacific communications manager for Oceana.