You’re viewing a version of this story optimized for slow connections. To see the full story click here.

Is Arctic conservation prepared for the coming melt?

Peter Harris

Story by GRID-Arendal April 26th, 2017

The news continues to be bad for Arctic sea ice in the summer.

Last year it declined to around 4 million km2 from around 7.5 million km2 in 1979. The downward trend in Arctic sea ice cover over the last 37 years is unequivocal and it is attributed by climate scientists and modelers to human activity. At the current rate of rising atmospheric CO2 concentration, climate models predict that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer as soon as 2030.

As the summer minimum in Arctic sea ice cover declines, interest grows in the untapped oil, gas and fisheries resources that were previously concealed beneath. Research by GRID-Arendal’s Miles Macmillan Lawler and I looks at the rapid rate of change and shows that existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Arctic Ocean offer little or no protection to many habitats and deep seafloor features that coincide with areas likely to be of interest to industry. The work was presented at the International Conference on Arctic Science in Reston, Virginia, USA, this week.

“The retreat of sea ice will make accessible, for the first time in human history, previously ice-covered fishing grounds, oil and gas deposits, deep sea minerals, and will open new shipping routes and seaways to previously inaccessible coastlines.”

The habitats now being exposed by retreating ice are globally unique, hosting Arctic species within pristine environments that are invaluable as reference points for conservation monitoring and assessment. The existing Arctic MPAs network needs to be expanded in order to protect these habitats.

The authors assessed the numbers and areas of seafloor geomorphic features that were once covered by year-round sea ice, but which are today exposed during the late summer sea-ice minimum. They also measured the areas of features occurring within and outside of MPAs. Seafloor geomorphic features are important habitats - seamounts, canyons, ridges and plateaus each support unique benthic communities.

A new, global seafloor geomorphic features map has been created that shows 29 categories of geomorphic features, defined by the International Hydrographic Organisation. The analysis shows that 37 per cent of subsea canyons that were previously covered by ice are now in open water. Submarine canyons contain potential fishing grounds, biodiversity hotspots, cold-water coral communities and cetacean feeding grounds. These canyons are associated with oceanographic upwelling zones and enhanced productivity.

In other regions seamounts host highly biodiverse, fragile cold-water coral ecosystems, as well as valuable fisheries. Few seamount-associated fisheries have proven to be sustainable. The seamounts and Gakkel Ridge hydrothermal vents contain valuable mineral deposits that could be exploited in the future.

GRID-Arendal: Conceptual diagram showing the different types of geomorphic features found in the Arctic Ocean.

The paper states that the retreat of sea ice will make accessible, for the first time, previously ice-covered fishing grounds, oil and gas deposits, deep sea minerals, and will open new shipping routes and seaways to previously inaccessible coastlines.

“In response to the reducing sea ice conditions the question arises: Will industry move to expand operations in the Arctic to extract the newly-accessible natural resources? This is a reasonable question to ask, given the world’s growing demand for resources.”

Existing MPAs cover only 2% of the area under year-round sea ice. They are located mainly along coastlines and the inner-shelf. Abyssal habitats are not included and negligible protection is provided to slope habitats.

An important point to consider is the near-pristine condition of these habitats. Most have never previously been exploited which greatly enhances their value to science as benchmarks for future research. The study of species and ecosystems adapting to the new climate change environment is a further argument for protecting and conserving these habitats.

How will society respond to this new challenge?

Footnote: Header photo: Peter Prokosch/GRID-Arendal