The Arctic

The Arctic faces unparalleled challenges with consequences not only for the region, but for our entire planet.

The Arctic spans roughly 5.5 million square miles at the top of the globe. Its icy waters are home to supremely adapted wildlife including bowhead whales, narwhals, walruses and ice-dependent seals. The region also provides vital summer habitat for migratory species such as gray whales—and millions of migratory birds.

The region is home to communities of indigenous peoples who have lived in the region for millennia and are an integral part of the Arctic ecosystem. Many Alaska Natives live a traditional subsistence way of life and depend on a healthy marine environment to survive.

For those who live outside the Arctic, the region is a vital regulator of climate and fresh water inflows for the entire planet, and a driver of global ocean currents. The Arctic is important to all of us.

Today the Arctic faces unparalleled challenges, from expanding industrial activity to climate change impacts and ocean acidification. At Ocean Conservancy, we’re working to help citizens and decision-makers alike understand what’s at stake. We’re advocating for science-based solutions to ensure that Arctic waters remain healthy and clean.

Ground Zero in a Warming World

As the global demand for oil and gas continues to escalate, sensitive Arctic ecosystems and the wildlife that lives there face threats from seismic testing, exploratory drilling, and increased vessel and air traffic.

We know from our experience with the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that more science is needed to inform decisions about whether, where and how to drill.

No proven methods exist to effectively clean up oil spilled in icy Arctic waters, yet the federal agency responsible for regulating offshore oil and gas drilling approved Shell Oil’s plan for exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

Setbacks and missteps forced Shell to give up its plans to drill into subsea oil reservoirs in 2012, and the company announced in early 2013 that it would it would suspend its attempts at further oil exploration in the Arctic for the rest of the year. Shell has clearly demonstrated that the company is not prepared to conduct safe and responsible operations in icy Arctic waters.

We need a time-out on Arctic drilling until we have improved our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, protected important ecological and subsistence areas and developed effective methods to clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic water. 

Additional leasing and drilling should go forward only after we have improved our understanding of the region, protected important ecological and subsistence areas, and developed effective methods to clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic waters.

Acidifying Arctic Waters

The ocean absorbs carbon emissions from the atmosphere—but as a result, ocean waters are becoming increasingly acidic. Because colder water is more susceptible to ocean acidification, the Arctic is among the first regions to experience its effects. Arctic waters are already being affected by this change. Recent research suggests that by 2030, the surface waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas could become so acidic that it may impair the ability of marine organisms to build and maintain shells. Waters of the Bering Sea could reach this this level of acidity by 2044. Increasing acidification would not only affect shell-building species. Many of the shell-building animals that are feeling the impacts today are food for much bigger species, like whales. Ocean acidification could cause a radical reshuffling of ocean life in the Arctic. 

Increasing Industrialization 

While global climate change and increasing acidification present significant threats, expansion of industrial activities in the Arctic can exacerbate stress on—and reduce the resilience of—its marine ecosystems. Given these pressures, we’re fighting to protect important marine areas and minimize the impacts of industrial activities.

Ocean Conservancy has long been active in the fight against risky offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. We’ve seen great success: the President has set aside nearly 10 million acres as off-limits to oil and gas companies, and Shell and other oil and gas companies have abandoned their drilling prospects in the U.S. Chukchi Sea for the foreseeable future. But there are still live oil leases in the Arctic Ocean, and the threat of offshore drilling remains—along with the threat of new oil and gas lease sales in the region. As a result, we continue to oppose new leasing in the U.S. Arctic Ocean, to fight to make additional important marine areas off-limits to oil and gas companies and to strengthen the environmental and safety rules that govern offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

In addition to the threat of drilling, the Arctic is witnessing increasing levels of vessel traffic. Arctic shipping routes can reduce the distance, sailing time and cost of shipping compared to existing alternatives. As the region becomes more accessible, more shipping companies are using these northern shipping lanes, including the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage. Arctic tourism is bringing cruise ships to these remote waters, too. But additional vessel traffic exposes wildlife and Native communities to new risks, including increased potential for water, air, and noise pollution; ship strikes; invasive species; oil spills and interference with local boats. These impacts could be especially severe in “hotspots” like the Bering Strait—a narrow passage that is the only maritime link between the Arctic and Pacific. As ocean advocates, we are working with our partners to develop strategies to make Arctic shipping safer—before vessel traffic escalates dramatically.

An International Challenge

Bordered by eight different nations, the Arctic Ocean is impacted by changes well beyond our national borders. The Arctic Council serves as a critical intergovernmental forum in the circumpolar Arctic. Here, eight Arctic nations and six indigenous peoples’ organizations work together towards a coordinated approach in the Arctic. Ocean Conservancy staff participate at the Arctic Council as observers through the Circumpolar Conservation Union. While the Arctic Council has made important progress towards coordinating between Arctic nations, there is no coordinated management scheme for the Arctic Ocean. We’re working through the Arctic Council process to support an ecosystem approach to management in the Arctic Ocean to ensure that this important place is protected.

Sensible Solutions

The Arctic needs our help today. Without careful planning, management and regulation, industrial activities like oil drilling and shipping could have dire consequences for a region that is already under enormous stress from global climate change and increasing acidification. And that could affect all of us, no matter where we live. Help Ocean Conservancy protect the pristine Arctic, including its wildlife and those who depend on the abundance of Arctic waters to support their subsistence way of life.

Protect the Arctic

Learn how you can help protect the Arctic and the wildlife who call it home.

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