Much of the Arctic’s future is uncertain, but one thing seems sure: change will continue for the people, plants, and animals that make the Arctic their home. Dramatic change has become their way of life. Responding to and managing this change has become a new, all-encompassing focus for the region. The challenge is both daunting and exciting, but it is not optional.
Shipping traffic in the Arctic is increasing. Source: istock/Eretmochelis
As sea ice diminishes, large areas of open ocean are becoming newly accessible to shipping. Melting ice and snow has changed the ways that people drive across and dig into the land. These changes are transforming the Arctic: some formerly isolated and pristine areas are now more accessible, but at the same time the diminishing seasonal duration of ice roads can limit travel for subsistence hunting and mineral development.
FIGURE 12. Planned areas for oil and gas exploration in the U.S. Arctic.
Source: National Research Council
There are an estimated 30 billion barrels of technically recoverable, undiscovered oil in the U.S. Arctic alone, constituting 13 percent of the world’s remaining oil reserves (Figure 12). The Arctic also contains valuable mineral deposits, including some rare minerals critical to making electronics. Rising demand for these raw materials, combined with the Arctic’s increasing accessibility, make it possible that the region will become more highly developed as these reserves are explored and tapped. Increasing exploration and development in the Arctic can lead to a number of opportunities and risks. There is potential for economic benefits and increased opportunities for access, but this needs to be balanced with increased scientific knowledge of the Arctic physical, ecological, social, political, and economic systems to support sound management decisions. Increased oil activities open the region to increased risk of oil spills. Managing an oil spill is extremely challenging even in temperate and calm conditions, but the remoteness and harsh conditions of the Arctic make it particularly difficult to mount a speedy and effective response when something goes wrong. Responders can easily become blocked by severe storms or water routes that suddenly freeze over. In the winter, reduced daylight poses special challenges. Communications infrastructure and response equipment are limited in many areas of the Arctic, hindering responders’ ability to effectively coordinate their efforts.
The presence of sea ice and other environmental variables like rapidly changing weather and dense fog can complicate oil spill response, and no single technique applies in all situations. Operators working in the Arctic need to be ready to assess the environmental tradeoffs associated with different response options and deploy any, all, or, when warranted, none of the measures available to them to most effectively reduce the impacts to the ecosystem.
Oil rig in the Arctic Ocean.
INSET: Gas station.
Source: Shutterstock/Carolyn Franks
Oil spills can be harmful to ecosystems and societies anywhere, but communities in the Arctic are particularly vulnerable. Many Arctic residents rely on hunting and fishing to feed their families, so even temporary damage to the ecosystem can be catastrophic for these communities, not only because of the loss of sustenance, but also the customs that go along with the practices and preparation. The Arctic’s wild animals and ecosystems are similarly vulnerable to spill-related toxins and food chain disruptions.
The 2014 National Research Council report Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Marine Environment identifies priorities for improving the ability to respond to a serious oil spill in the Arctic.
In the past, few ships ventured into the perilous waters of the Arctic Ocean or its various straits and seas. Those that passed through were primarily there to service oil production facilities, transport mining products, and deliver supplies to coastal communities.
That situation is changing rapidly. In the summer of 2012, the U.S. Coast Guard estimated 480 ships transited the Bering Strait between Alaska
and Russia, an area that would have seen much less vessel traffic 10 years earlier. More and more ships are coming to the Arctic to explore for oil and gas, conduct research missions, and transport oil and other commodities. Tourism vessels are also on the rise.
With increased vessel traffic comes greater risks to people and the environment. Although sea ice is shrinking, the Arctic remains a harsh and dangerous environment for navigation, especially because remnant sea ice can pose hazards, particularly with changing weather and sea conditions. In the fall, open routes can freeze solid in a matter of days. Many areas are poorly charted and have limited communications infrastructure, making navigation and emergency response exceedingly difficult. Ports of refuge are few and far between, and many emergency response capabilities that exist in the U.S. Arctic are limited and restricted to southern Alaska. These rapid changes also may have an impact on subsistence hunting and migratory patterns of marine mammals.
The U.S. Coast Guard is the lead federal agency in matters relating to safe navigation in U.S. waters and works with other nations to support maritime safety in international waters. One critical new technology the Coast Guard is using to make Arctic shipping safer is the automatic identification system (AIS). Almost all commercial vessels operating in U.S. waters are now equipped with AIS transponders that continuously transmit information about the vessel and its route, allowing the Coast Guard to convey warnings, monitor ships’ positions, and send help when needed.
Though technology is improving, communication and international cooperation remain crucial to ensuring the safety and security of ships navigating the Arctic. The 2013 Transportation Research Board conference summary Safe Navigation in the U.S. Arctic explores challenges and needs related to vessel traffic in U.S. Arctic waters.
U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy and the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent side by side.
Source: U.S. Coast Guard
Warm or cold, one thing about the Arctic remains the same: it’s extraordinary. Tourists and adventurers have long been drawn to its stunning landscapes, fascinating wildlife, and unique cultures. As Arctic waters and land become easier to navigate, the number of people with the means and motivation to tour the Arctic is rapidly increasing.
Cruise ships and small personal vessels are venturing farther into the Arctic each year, and tourists have become the largest human presence in many Arctic regions. For Arctic communities, a steady flow of tourists can be a boon to local economies, creating local jobs in shops, restaurants, hotels, and tour companies. But tourism also has downsides for indigenous communities, such as the risk that tourists may violate traditional customs or damage cultural sites and artifacts. Tourism and cruise ships also can have impacts on traditional hunting and fishing, as the ships are typically present in the summer months, when obtaining subsistence resources that last through the winter is important.
Tourism also increases the pressure on land, water, wildlife, and other natural resources. Large cruise ships visit during the Arctic summer, when many animals are at their most vulnerable as they feed, mate, and tend their young. Ships may intentionally or inadvertently discharge sewage, oil, invasive species, and debris into sensitive Arctic environments. Increased tourism traffic through Arctic land and water also increases safety risks and adds to the burden on limited emergency support personnel when problems arise.
Tourists explore the ice in the Canadian Arctic in August 2013. Source: Alain A Grenier
The increasing exploration and exploitation of Arctic resources has important geopolitical and economic ramifications far beyond the Arctic Circle. In addition to the nations that have territory in the Arctic, many other countries are increasing their presence in the Arctic through tourism, research, and commercial development. As an illustration of the level of interest in the Arctic among more southern countries, the Arctic Council now includes China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India, and Italy as “Arctic observer states,” a status that allows them to participate in the Arctic Council but not to vote on Council decisions (Figure 13).
Chief Kristina Kane speaks at an Arctic Council meeting.
Source: Arctic Council
FIGURE 13. Map of Arctic Council member countries (dark blue) and Observer countries (light blue).
Source Data: Arctic Council
Arctic Residents as Research Partners
Source: Henry Huntington
The need for actionable Arctic research has never been greater than it is today. From providing logistical support and safety in the ﬁeld to offering insights from generations of observations and experience, Arctic people have a great deal to offer as partners in the research endeavor. They also have a great deal to gain from sound scientiﬁc research, which can play an important role in addressing the effects of the region’s rapid environmental and social change.
Even with recent advances in science and new observational tools on land, sea, air, and space, understanding Arctic ecosystems is no easy task. Understanding how shifting weather and climate are affecting the region’s flora and fauna will require in-depth knowledge about the environment. Traditional knowledge — insight about the environment built through many years of observations, experiences, and lessons and passed on through generations of longtime residents — is an invaluable resource to help build that understanding.
There is room for improvement in the involvement of local Arctic residents in all stages of research. Bringing local communities into the discussion in the early stages of research development can help foster improved partnerships and could help scientists better reﬁne their methods and research questions. Although there are many good examples of effective community-researcher collaborations, residents can also experience “research fatigue” if they have been involved in many studies without seeing follow up from researchers after the studies conclude. For the people who are living the reality of the changing Arctic every day, it is crucial to be able to act on what is learned from research. Making connections between research activities and real-world decisions requires the involvement of residents, researchers, and leaders.
The important role of Arctic residents as research partners is discussed in the 2014 National Research Council report, The Arctic in the Anthropocene: Emerging Research Questions.
Arctic residents — both indigenous and non-indigenous — are most directly affected by the environmental changes happening in the Arctic and are most acutely affected by the region’s increase in human activity. At the same time, growing interest in the Arctic from the south is bringing an influx of new people, new cultures, new ideas, and new opportunities.
Many Arctic indigenous groups are experiencing greater political autonomy and influence. Although most are located within the legal jurisdiction of the Arctic nations, these groups have benefitted from an increasing level of involvement in decision making. Many are now part of processes that review proposed developments such as mines or oil drilling operations and influence the way the economic benefits of such developments are distributed.
Although the numerous groups in the Arctic often have differing views, Arctic communities continue to exercise their influence to balance cultural, economic, and environmental needs. Their experiences can be valuable for other indigenous and remote cultures facing increasing stresses including climate change.
Melting sea ice makes the Arctic more accessible to commercial and military interests alike. In addition, the growing interest in exploiting the region’s rich natural resources could spark disputes over territory and transit rights among countries bordering the Arctic and those pursuing business interests there.
Although the likelihood of conflict in the Arctic is low, it cannot be ruled out. The relationships among Arctic nations could become more strained in the future as the stakes rise in the competition for Arctic resources. Experts have raised concerns about the U.S. Navy’s limited surface capability and operational infrastructure in the region, suggesting the United States re-institute a cold-weather training program and work to improve mapping, communications infrastructure, and navigation charts for the region. In addition, the U.S. fleet of icebreakers — vessels capable of clearing a path through ice-covered water — is badly in need of updating to boost the nation’s ability to train, operate, and engage in the Arctic.
The 2011 National Research Council report National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces addresses the United States’ preparedness for national security threats in the Arctic.
The U.S. Navy Los Angeles class Attack Submarine USS Hampton surfaced at the North Pole as part of an operational exercise beneath the polar ice cap. Source: United States Navy/ JOC Kevin Elliott