Arctic environment requires special environmental protection
The ecosystem of the Arctic is more susceptible to pollution than other parts of the world which is even more critical because the Arctic region plays a key role in maintaining the health of the global environment.
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The ecosystem of the Arctic is more susceptible to pollution than other parts of the world.28 There are several factors that contribute to the Arctic’s vulnerability:
- Low temperatures retard the decomposition of natural and manmade substances and the breakdown of pollutants;
- Regeneration is a protracted process because of the short growing season;
- Large concentrations of animals heighten vulnerability to catastrophes;
- Marine areas are particularly important in the Arctic in comparison with other regions of the globe;
- Climatic conditions are likely to produce a more pronounced carbon dioxide-induced warming trend in the Arctic than in temperate regions and are already leading to high concentrations of air pollutants that threaten vegetation as well as human and animal life; and
- Severe weather and ice dynamics make environmental protection and cleanup extremely difficult.29
The intricate interactions and complex food-webs within the Arctic ecosystem make these concerns even more pronounced.30 Simply put, the Arctic ecosystem is ―extremely complex.31 The increased navigation and resource exploration that is likely to occur raises several important concerns. Though there are problems common to both resource exploration and navigation, this Note will discuss the challenges separately.
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There is also a significant problem with the generality of environmental protections in the UNCLOS. As mentioned previously, the treaty purports to regulate activity in all of the world’s oceans.136 It does not, therefore, deal explicitly with the very unique problems facing the Arctic environment.137 Unless the international community recognizes the region’s special needs, its natural environment will continue to worsen and become even more difficult to restore.
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Increased oil and gas development will adversely affect the Arctic through increased oil spills and development infrastructure.14 Oil spills are more likely in the Arctic because oil tankers are not built to withstand collisions with sea ice, which is becoming more mobile and unpredictable as the Arctic warms.15 Oil spills are especially dangerous in the Arctic because of the region’s cold temperatures, which decrease rates of oil decomposition, resulting in the elimination of wildlife habitats and feeding grounds affected by any spills.16 Elimination of habitat and feeding grounds will have a profound effect on Arctic species, which rely on a short food chain that can be fatally disrupted by the loss of even a single species.17 These adverse effects will be compounded by increased oil and gas development infrastructure, which will include an array of new support facilities on land, oil rigs at sea, on- and off-shore pipelines, and increased air, land, and sea transportation.18 This infrastructure will interfere with wildlife feeding, breeding, rest, and migration.19 The Arctic is, by its nature, an unusually vulnerable environment and global warming compounds this vulnerability.20 The adverse effects of increased oil and gas exploration would even further aggravate the region’s vulnerability.21
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Off-shore mining poses serious environmental hazards that are not always visible to the naked eye. For instance, drilling can cause ocean currents to change, altering the marine environment, and affecting temperatures worldwide. 10 7 It can also destroy marine habitats and their biological communities in the vicinity of hydrothermal vents.'0 8 More obviously, oil exploration, especially in the harsh conditions of the Arctic, risks oil spills into the Arctic waters. BP Exploration (Alaska), for instance, is on average responsible for an oil spill every day in its Prudhoe Bay operation.109 These spills have the effect of depleting the popula- tions of Arctic wildlife, including game animals hunted for food by indigenous Arctic peoples."110
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The same chemical, organic, and radiological pollutants that contaminate the ecosystems of the rest of the planet pose particular problems for the Arctic. The freezing temperatures of the Arctic, both on land and at sea, prevent pollutants from breaking down into non-toxic constituent components.20 For instance, although the Arctic nations stopped using leaded gasoline more than a decade ago, the measurable lead in fish and wildlife in the area has not declined.21 In addition to the cold, the currents which flow to the Arctic from all over the world bring as much as 60% of the pollutants ultimately sited in the Arctic from somewhere else.22 Thus, the failure to include non-Arctic nations in future Arctic clean-up efforts would leave the majority of incoming pollutants unaddressed.
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While the Arctic suffers special harms from ordinary pollutants, the ordinary conditions of the Arctic play a special role in maintaining the global environment.2' First,the cool water of the marine Arctic plays an important role in global oceanic heat exchange, helping to keep the temperature and salinity of the tropical seas constant;24 second, the Arctic ice reflects solar energy in the form of light, further helping to cool the planet;25 third, although the Arctic is not a significant carbon sink,26 perennial Arctic ice has nevertheless trapped significant amounts of methane and carbon dioxide over the past several hundred years.27
Changes in any of these three processes have potentially major global impacts above and beyond the temperature increases generated by the underlying green- house effect. Decreased Arctic ice will result in a slower hydrological cycle, trapping heat in the tropics and the Arctic, while simultaneously mitigating the temperature effects of climate change on the North Atlantic region.28 Moreover, slower currents are less effective at transporting the evaporated freshwater that would otherwise migrate north from the tropics, creating on the one hand more severe precipitation events in the low latitudes, while on the other hand prevent- ing water vapor from traveling across continental land masses (thus resulting in droughts).2 9
Another result of melting Arctic ice is an overall rise in the global mean sea level.3° Observed increases in sea level due to Arctic melt indicate that decreases in Arctic sea ice and the Greenland ice sheet alone have already contributed a .98 ± .29 millimeter rise to global sea levels.31 Were both the Arctic and Antarctic ice to melt completely-it is difficult to imagine one without the other-the total increase in sea levels would be between seventy-five and ninety meters.32
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Change is happening most rapidly, and can be seen most vividly, in the Arctic. The Arctic Ocean is the least understood of all the world’s oceans, but we know it is warming at approximately twice the rate of the rest of the oceans. That is causing the rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice. In September 2007, the minimum ice extent at the end of summer was 23 percent lower than what it had been in 2005, the previous record low, and 50 per- cent lower than was typical in the 1950s through the 1970s.26 Scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Center and the National Center for Atmospheric Research have found that Arctic sea ice is melting even faster than models have projected, giving rise to predictions that the Arctic might be seasonally ice free as soon as 2013, and possibly earlier.
Such rapid change will lead to the local loss—or, in some cases, complete extinction—of certain Arctic species. Ice-associated marine algae and amphipods provide the base of the unique food web that includes a rich variety of invertebrates, fish, and birds. Ice-dependent ocean mammals, such as bowhead whales, narwhals, polar bears, ringed seals, and walruses, will also be directly affected by loss of habitat. The changes in the extent of Arctic sea ice will also have profound consequences for the world’s climate, increasing the retention of solar heat and reducing the vital temperature gradient between the warmer tropics and colder polar regions, thus altering ocean currents and weather patterns throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
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In spite of these efforts to raise awareness of potential adverse environmental impacts, these concerns do not seem to be slowing the push for Arctic drilling and exploration.67 In fact, "several prominent [U.S.] environmental organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Ocean Conservancy, formed an unlikely alliance with big oil and gas to support UNCLOS."68 This is because UNCLOS has provisions to help protect the Arctic environment.69 Thus, even though "pursuing oil exploration in the Arctic would threaten the region's fragile ecology,"70 environmental groups also see internationally organized territory as a way establishing a cohesive view that will prevent pollution in the Arctic.
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The ice was never supposed to melt this quickly. Although climate scientists have known for some time that global warming was shrinking the percentage of the Arctic Ocean that was frozen over, few predicted so fast a thaw. In 2007, the Inter- governmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that Arctic summers would become ice free beginning in 2070. Yet more recent satellite observations have moved that date to somewhere around 2035, and even more sophisticated simulations in 2012 moved the date up to 2020. Sure enough, by the end of last summer, the portion of the Arctic Ocean covered by ice had been reduced to its smallest size since record keeping began in 1979, shrinking by 350,000 square miles (an area equal to the size of Venezuela) since the previous summer. All told, in just the past three decades, Arctic sea ice has lost half its area and three quarters of its volume.
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The environment and the management of natural resources are the most pressing security issue in the North. States are committed to addressing issues of boundaries and Arctic Ocean access through existing institutions, principally UNCLOS. Large-scale damage to the Arctic environment from transportation accidents, energy development, fishing, tourism, and the long-range transport of pollutants from the South pose greater immediate threats than classic security issues. Emergency response systems and contingency plans for the North are needed to respond to possible ship disasters, industrial pollution, oil spills, etc. Such a response system is currently non-existent or not up to the task. Given the increased shipping activity in the Arctic and the lack of ports and rescue capability, the need is growing. This should be a task for the Arctic Council in cooperation with existing specialized bodies such the International Maritime Organization.
The need for large-scale ecosystem-based management regimes to pro- tect the integrity of the Arctic Ocean is receiving increasing attention, including proposals for an Arctic Treaty or Park to manage and protect the Arctic Ocean as a commons. These proposals underlie the need for a strong Arctic Council and U.S. participation in UNCLOS in order to provide institutional protection for the Arctic Ocean.