The U.S. Arctic hosts some of the world’s last intact large marine ecosystems, but they are threatened by climate change, loss of sea ice, and industrialization.
Indigenous people have thrived in the region for thousands of years, living a traditional way of life sustained by a healthy marine environment, abundant biodiversity, and several wildlife species found nowhere else in the country.
The U.S. Arctic provides vital habitat for fish, crabs, mollusks, copepods, and krill, which together serve as the foundation of an Arctic marine food web that maintains globally significant populations of polar bears, walrus, ice seals, bowhead and beluga whales, seabirds, and waterfowl. Some of these species are migratory, while others live in Arctic waters all year.
The federal Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast extend from the Aleutian Islands chain through the Bering Strait to the U.S.-Canadian border in the Beaufort Sea and include iconic places such as the Bering Strait, the Chukchi Sea coast, and Barrow Canyon. This vast region is shaped by seasonal extremes. Months of winter darkness with temperatures that can drop as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit give way to long hours of sunlight and a summer burst of biological productivity that support flourishing fish and wildlife.
But climate change and inadequately regulated industrial development jeopardize the future of the Arctic marine environment. The rapid loss of sea ice is fundamentally altering natural systems and enabling new access for offshore oil and gas development, industrial shipping, and commercial fishing. To prevent irreparable damage to the health of these unique ecosystems, precautionary, science-based policies must be in place before industrial development in the Arctic proceeds.
The Pew Charitable Trusts is not opposed to offshore drilling but believes that a balanced and careful approach to development must account for environmental protection, as well as the social, cultural, and subsistence needs of indigenous communities.
Learn more about Pew’s work in the U.S. Arctic and science- and community-based solutions to the challenges facing the region on the Priorities page.
The U.S. Arctic Program focuses on: