Hong Kong Customs displays 82.5kg of rhino horns from South Africa and destined for Malaysia. Photo: ISD

President Obama Visits a Changing Arctic

By Dan Hubbell, EIA Assistant Policy Analyst

As the final stop on his summer tour on climate change, President Obama is in Alaska today. In addition to making history as the first sitting President to visit the American Arctic, this visit is not merely symbolic. More than four hundred dignitaries from all eight Arctic nations and other countries like China and the United Kingdom are also gathered in Alaska to discuss the issue of climate change and other Arctic matters at the GLACIER conference.

The backdrop is a fitting one, and it is a fitting chance for the President to show the world what the frontlines of climate change looks like. Arctic temperatures have risen at twice the rate of the rest of the world since 1980, and projections show that the region will experience the largest temperature shift in the future due to climate change: between 2.8 and 7.8 degrees Celsius. On land, melting permafrost and erosion threaten to destroy the very ground that villages are built on, and hotter, drier summers have meant more intense and frequent wildfires. And in the surrounding oceans climate change threatens the future of the region’s beluga whales.

Although they are not considered as dependent on sea ice as other species like walrus or polar bears, the loss of sea ice in the Arctic is already impacting the beluga’s ability to hunt for its preferred prey like Arctic cod. In a 2015 study, researchers found that belugas in the Canadian Beaufort Sea began to experience a consistent decline in their rate of growth beginning in 1994, likely linked to the shift of Arctic cod away from their coastal migratory route.

The loss of sea ice also removes an important ecological barrier for sea borne pathogens. In 2013, ten percent of the belugas caught in the Beaufort Sea contained the parasite Toxoplasmosa gondii—the first time this parasite has ever been detected in an Arctic marine mammal. If consumed in uncooked meat, it can cause blindness in humans.

Beyond these direct impacts, the warming Arctic will also expose the belugas to greater pressure from human activity. With sea ice down to just 1.9 million square miles in 2014, its sixth lowest recorded extent, many companies have sensed an opportunity for shipping through the Arctic. The Northern Sea Route (NSR), passing along the coast of the Russian Federation and through the Bering Strait, offers a comparatively faster journey from European to Asian markets than the alternate route through the Suez Canal. Although commercial use of the fabled Northwest Passage along the coasts of Alaska and Canada is further away from development, at least one cruise line is already planning annual trips.

This added vessel traffic will make the Arctic a noisier environment, disrupting the beluga’s activities and possibly causing them to flee away from its source. In several studies in the Canadian Arctic, belugas were found to exhibit a “flight” response from icebreakers at distances of up to 35-50 km.

Vessels also increase the risk of chemical pollution for belugas. Chemicals such as butyltin, used as an active compound in antifouling paints for ship hulls, is toxic to marine mammals and has already been found in the livers of the more southern population of belugas in the St. Lawrence estuary. More than other impacts though, a warming Arctic exposes a large portion of the beluga’s global range to exploration for oil. Sixty percent of the beluga’s population range overlaps with known hydrocarbon areas, and the United States Geological Service estimates that as much as 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered recoverable oil and 30 percent of its natural gas reserves are within the Arctic.

EIA is disappointed in the President’s decision to approve Shell’s 2015 season of exploratory drilling. In spite of their disastrous 2012 season, and more recently the damaging of the icebreaker Fennica on an unmapped shoal, Shell has finally begun to explore for oil in the Chukchi Sea. While commercial production from any discovered wells would not begin until 2030 at the earliest, the President’s approval for this process exposes the American Arctic to the possibility of a major oil spill. This is not a scenario that the United States is prepared for. Were a spill to occur in the Chukchi Sea, the closest major Coast Guard facility is located in Dutch Harbor more than one thousand miles away. Even if the proper logistics were in place to tackle a spill, the Arctic is an unpredictable environment characterized by periods of total darkness, bitter cold, and 50 foot ocean swells. The result would be catastrophic for the region’s belugas. For the belugas as well as his climate legacy, the President should take steps to ensure that the Arctic’s oil remains where it is.

The President’s visit to Alaska and the Arctic offers a golden opportunity to lay the foundation for action on climate change. In just three months President Obama and other world leaders will meet again to discuss the issue at the 21st Conference of Parties in Paris. Hopefully the President and others in Anchorage today will be inspired to take the steps needed to ensure a dramatic and effective agreement on climate change is reached. The Arctic and the planet cannot afford any more delay.