Northern Exposure (Winter 2012 Trust Magazine Article)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Doug Struck


01/04/2012 - Outi Tervo was on the bow, crouching from the knifing wind, with another scientist, Kristin Westdal.  A hydrophone 30 feet under water connected to headphones beneath Tervo’s fur-trimmed parka. The motors were still, the frigid water quiet but for the snaps and whistles of the drifting sea ice and the eerie chatter of bearded seals.  For six days they had heard nothing else but silence.

Then . . . a low moan.

Tervo was not sure.  “I didn’t know if I was just wishing I heard it. Kristin was staring into my eyes. She could see I was excited. I gave her the headphones, and I could see her eyes light up. ”

A bowhead whale, the subject of biologist Tervo’s long fascination, had quietly left Greenland’s Disko Bay, headed for the entrance to the famed Northwest Passage, a stop on its grand, looping migration.  Somewhere beneath the Arctic Endeavour, the whale broke its mute sojourn, perhaps calling to the herd slipping toward the polar ice pack, or perhaps gauging the ice from the echoes.

“The whales sing all the time when they arrive in Disko Bay in early January, and then by late May it’s complete silence until they leave. Nobody has had the chance to follow them to see if they say anything on their migration,” said Tervo, a Finnish scientist aboard the Pew research vessel.

The 45-foot Arctic Endeavour prowled Greenland’s western coast for four weeks last June to expand scientific knowledge of migrating whales and the legendary narwhal, and to make a point about how much is not yet known.

“There’s an incredible marine migration that goes through that area,” said Christopher Debicki, who headed the expedition for the Pew Environment Group. “We have been talking about it for years, but we wanted to study it.  There are a lot of mysteries about that migration.”

Pew’s interest in the Arctic North is prompted by what it sees as a fleeting opportunity—and a growing threat. The opportunity is to put science-based rules in place before man’s footprint on the remote region grows greater.

Pew’s Oceans North campaign is about trying to get out ahead of the curve for a new frontier,” said Steve Ganey, a senior officer in the environment group.  “We want to make sure that before we do anything, we look at it and make sure we do it right.”

The threat comes from a meltdown induced by climate change, and from the fishermen, vessel captains and oil drillers who are watching the growing open Arctic sea, preparing to move in.

The Arctic is feeling the effects of climate change twice as quickly as more temperate zones.  Already, average temperatures have risen 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the Arctic over the past decade, with upper predictions of a 13-degree rise this century. The polar ice cap, once a massive and indomitable helmet atop the earth, is becoming the planet’s beanie, skirted by ships in open water. The average ice cap shrank by one-third in the past decade compared with the previous two; last summer it was the second-smallest on record, only slightly larger than in 2007.

Polar bears and seals, which thrive on the confluence of ocean and ice, are seeing their hunting and birthing areas melt away.  Inuit and other northern indigenous peoples can no longer trust the frozen paths they have used for thousands of years.  The underpinnings of the marine ecosystem—from plankton to forage fish to predators—are shifting along with the melting of the ice into new relationships and patterns that both Arctic residents and scientists are struggling to understand.

“There’s no question that my grandkids and my son and daughter will be in a very different world,” said Edward Saggan Itta, 66, a hunter and former mayor of Alaska’s North Slope Borough, a community that includes 2,600 Inupiat Eskimos.  Last spring, Itta and his son crossed miles of rough ice to a narrow open channel created by the thaw. They harpooned a huge bowhead whale slipping through the channel on its migratory trek, one of four whales taken that season by the community for subsistence.

Because of the changing climate, the whales now come two or three weeks earlier than in years past, making the spring whale hunt difficult and dangerous, Itta said.

“We’re reluctant to go out so early in the year. It’s still dark, and the temperatures are below freezing,” he explained. “The ice is very rough, and very thin, and it’s harder to keep the whaling crews safe.”

The frozen mysteries of the polar region captivated—and often captured—explorers just a century ago.  Men like Amundsen, Henson, Byrd and Franklin sought fame by daring the ice pack. Many perished, their vessels caught and crushed in the Arctic’s grip.

Now, holiday cruise ships bearing tourists nose tentatively through Canada’s Northwest Passage. On the other side of the North Pole, tankers plow through 2,000 miles of open water past the northernmost tip of Russia. Drillers prepare to plunge through the cold waters to tap oil and gas. And scientists keep advancing their estimates of when summers will find the Arctic Ocean ice-free: perhaps in 90 years, they used to say, then 40; now it seems likely within one or two decades.

“When I was working out of Barrow, the whole thing was totally ice covered,” Vera Alexander, who spent 50 years studying Arctic oceanography at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, recalled of her work on the northernmost U.S. settlement.  “Now, in the summer, there’s not an ounce of ice to be seen.”

“The ice is melting.  We are going to have a new ocean,” Ganey said.  “And there’s going to be tremendous interest in oil and gas, in new shipping routes, in industrial fishing.”

A range of Arctic countries, international organizations, local communities and environmental groups fret about how to avoid a free-for-all in the coming rush for resources.

“We identified a bottom-up approach,” said Ganey, “one that has pragmatic policies, one that people can agree to in the areas that are going to be affected first.”

As part of that strategy, Pew tapped Scott Highleyman, a lawyer who had worked on conservation throughout Alaska for 13 years. Starting in 2008, Highleyman spent nine months traveling around the northern Inuit communities of Canada, talking to the people who stood most to lose—or gain—from changes in the Arctic.   

“The number one rule is that you don’t come up North with preconceived ideas. You are looking for northern conservation solutions to northern problems,” Highleyman said.  “There are lots of north-south tensions around these issues,” he noted. “But you start talking about habitat for the marine life that communities still rely upon, and you find very quickly you have common ground.”

As ice floes that block fishermen disappear, commercial fishing is likely to follow. But incomplete scientific information about the marine ecosystem could mean problems in ensuring new fisheries are sustainable. Inuit communities want to safeguard important fish stocks like Arctic cod that are key in the region’s food chain.

“A fleet of 30 factory trawlers is not going to show up in the Beaufort Sea tomorrow,” Highleyman said.  “But five boats could show up in the hotspots and wipe out the fish that sustain beluga whales. Those hotspots are incredibly important.  And we don’t really understand how they work.  There is a huge population of Arctic cod, for example, and we don’t really know where they go in winter.”

Pew started work in December 2008 under the direction of Marilyn Heiman, who oversees the institution’s U.S. Arctic program. By November 2009, with the support of conservationists, Alaska’s commercial fishing industry and Arctic communities, the United States adopted a fisheries management plan to prevent the start of commercial fisheries in the 212,000 square miles of U.S. Arctic waters until scientific data could ensure the ecosystem could sustain them.

Similar steps are being considered in neighboring Canadian waters, where the government has agreed to start working with Inuvialuit organizations on when and how commercial fishing in the Canadian portion of the Beaufort Sea should be considered. Pew’s Oceans North Canada campaign has supported background science and technical papers to aid in the discussion.

To the east across the top of North America, Pew is helping to support creation of a large marine protected area in Lancaster Sound. Portal to Canada’s Northwest Passage, Lancaster Sound is a major migratory pathway for 85 percent of the world’s narwhal, whose spear-like tooth made them the unicorns of the sea, as well as bowhead whales. In addition to scientific research, Pew is working with native Inuit to chronicle their time-tested knowledge of the region. Recently, the Canadian government renewed its pledge to create a national marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound that would bar any offshore oil and gas development. In the meantime, the government promised not to allow any offshore oil and gas leasing or seismic testing.

“Industry says it can be done safely. All we are asking is that they show us before they drill,” said Trevor Taylor, Oceans North Canada’s policy director in Ottawa, and a shrimp- and crab-boat captain before he served in Newfoundland’s provincial legislature.

Canada’s National Energy Board is reviewing drilling in its Arctic waters.  Pew’s Oceans North Canada campaign released a report in September calling for stronger environmental regulations on drilling and greater planning for spill clean-up, and urging that the communities of the North get a proportional share of the royalties.

“We know inevitably you will have some problem.  You will have a spill,” Taylor said. “The people who bear the brunt of any disaster—the marine mammal loss, the fisheries loss—would be the people of the Arctic.”

Even before the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, Pew had urged a time-out on oil and gas activity in the U.S. Beaufort and Chukchi seas until there was adequate spill response in place and a science-based plan that protected wildlife and indigenous communities. In March 2010, the Obama administration canceled four new drilling-lease sales in the Arctic and withdrew 33 million acres off southwest Alaska, which includes Bristol Bay, from oil and gas leasing until 2017.

This culturally and ecologically  rich region, known as America’s fish basket, provides more than 40 percent of the U.S. seafood catch and is home to the largest wild sockeye run in the world. Pew is working with communities and fishermen in the region for a permanent ban on drilling in Bristol Bay.

Despite these time-outs, the push for drilling in the U.S. Arctic continues.  Oil drilling off Alaska’s North Slope already is an incendiary political issue.

“It is likely there will be drilling,” said Heiman, a veteran of conservation efforts in and out of government who helped shape legislation in Alaska after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

“The question is when and where and how fast the administration will let the drilling happen.  With high seas, ice, darkness that lasts for two months and sub-zero temperatures, this is probably the most challenging place on the planet to drill for oil, and the most dangerous.” To help answer some of these questions, Oceans North U.S. commissioned the most comprehensive analysis to date on oil-spill prevention and response in the U.S. Arctic.

The findings of the report made a case for a more cautious approach to oil and gas development. Equipment for oil-spill cleanup is not close by in the Arctic. There are air strips or boat ramps instead of harbors and airports, and flights are often grounded by bad weather. Booms and skimmers do not work in ice, and chemical dispersants are ineffective in cold water.

“We are not opposed to all drilling in the Arctic Ocean,” Heiman said.  “But we really need to ensure that spill response and containment equipment have been tested in Arctic conditions and that Arctic-grade prevention and response standards are in place before industry moves forward.”

Drilling in the Arctic should not be an all-or-nothing decision, said Henry Huntington, Pew’s Arctic science director in Eagle River, Alaska.

“Biology is not uniform.  Some places are more important than others, just like on land: You wouldn’t want to drill in Yellowstone Park,” he said.  “There are shallows and depths and upwellings.  So it matters where you drill. You decide on the areas where biology is so important that you just ought to stay out of them.”

In the pristine Arctic waters, oil-well blowouts are not the only nightmare.  A passing cargo ship or tanker punctured by ice could cause a disaster in this fragile environment, Heiman said.

“As the ice melts, the Northwest Passage is going to become a major shipping route,” she said.  “Responding to an oil spill from a tanker would be virtually impossible there.”

But the U.S. and Canadian policies sought by Pew are limited, as countries control areas up to 200 miles from their coasts.  Drawing a line at those limits from the United States, Russia, Norway, Canada and Greenland leaves an area of international jurisdiction in the central Arctic Ocean about the size of the Mediterranean Sea. No international agreement is in place to regulate commercial fishing in this area. But it has never mattered: The area has been covered in year-round ice for at least 800,000 years. Until now.

“Using government data, we mapped the extent of summer sea ice in relation to the international waters of the central Arctic Ocean for the first time,” Highleyman said.  Pew’s analysis found that in recent summers, from 14 percent to 40 percent of this area was already open water. “It’s now feasible for commercial fishing to move into the central Arctic Ocean. And without a new international agreement, it is perfectly legal for fishing vessels from any country to do so without any rules or information about the ecosystem.”

Based on the analysis, in 2010 Pew began encouraging Arctic countries to meet and negotiate a simple international agreement to prevent the start of commercial fishing in the international waters of the central Arctic Ocean until the science and management are in place to ensure sustainability. Highleyman is encouraged by the progress: “The United States and Greenland have stated an agreement is needed. We’re hopeful that leadership from Russia, Canada and Norway can make the agreement a reality.”      

Although an international agreement is needed to regulate commercial fishing, the fate of much of the continental shelf in the area will be decided under the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty, signed by 162 countries.  Coastal nations such as Russia, Denmark and Canada are hoping to show a tribunal governed by the treaty that their national jurisdiction of continental shelf—including any underlying oil and gas—should be as much as 100 miles beyond each nation’s current 200-mile limit. The United States would like to make the same claim but can’t because the U.S. Senate has never ratified the treaty. Pew is urging ratification of the agreement to give the United States full membership in the international community deciding the fate of the Arctic.

In both the Arctic’s national and international waters, Pew advocates science- and community-based solutions to the region’s challenges. As Highleyman noted, “We’re not trying to stop all development in the North. The North needs an economy.  The young people in the North all need jobs.”

The campaigners worry that attempts to put a process in place may be overwhelmed by the fast pace of climate change.

Heiman believes it’s an effort worth making.

“It’s about trying to have a bigger vision, and look at a place that has not been destroyed yet, hasn’t been lost yet,” Heiman said. “We can play a role in trying to maintain some of those incredibly important ecosystems.  That is some of the best work we can do.”

“It is possible to do it right,” Highleyman added. “But you can’t do it right without the science.  We don’t have the answers to a lot of the important questions.”

That was the motivation for the voyage of the Arctic Endeavour, seeking to track bowhead whales and narwhal in their restless trek as they migrate from Greenland to Lancaster Sound and loop back to Hudson Bay.

Pew wanted to show the usefulness of a small trawler to scientists, cutting the dependence on big, expensive icebreakers typically used for research.  In this quest, fickle ice blocked the planned route: The Arctic Endeavour hit a wall of ice as it tracked the bowhead migration off northwest Greenland.  The whales slipped below the frozen wall, undeterred in their journey, able to break through two feet of ice for an occasional breath.

Guided by Inuit from a village on the nearby shore, the ship’s crew camped out on the moving ice floe for two days.  Seals came to meet the visitors, perhaps curious about the humans’ fluorescent snowsuits.  The sun hovered, always above the horizon.  Their guides kept watch for polar bears, agile swimmers who can erupt from the water with alarming speed.

“It was an incredibly beautiful floe edge, and the bowheads were bumping into it,” said Debicki, the expedition leader. “You could look out and see their plumes, their backs, their tails.  It was a very, very still day, and the nights were still.  The air was full of bowhead exhalations—steam shooting out of their blowholes.

“It was an absolutely serene place,” he added. “There was such calmness. It was the kind of moment that reminds me why I’m doing this work.”





Doug Struck, a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, is a Boston-based science and environmental writer who teaches at Emerson College. He last wrote for Trust about Pew’s shark conservation efforts. 

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