Arctic waters are shaped by sea ice. For at least 800,000 years, there has been year-round sea ice in at least some part of the Arctic Ocean. In winter, sea ice extends much farther south, bringing Arctic conditions and animals with it. Biologically, Arctic marine life—including human societies—have adapted to sea ice in many ways:

  • Algae live on the underside of the ice, providing food for zooplankton.
  • Arctic cod have antifreeze proteins in their blood.
  • Beluga whales can navigate through and find breathing holes in densely ice-covered waters.
  • Ringed seals give birth in lairs dug from snow drifts on the sea ice.
  • Polar bears blend in with snow and ice and have a layer of blubber to stay warm while swimming.
  • The Inuit, Inuvialuit, Inupiat, and Yupik have developed a detailed understanding of sea ice so that they can travel safely and hunt successfully.

In some ways, sea ice has protected Arctic animals and ecosystems from the full effects of industrial human activity. Traveling through or over sea ice can be dangerous and difficult. As sea ice retreats and access to the Arctic becomes easier, Arctic species face the double threat of climate change and industrial access including oil and gas activity and large-scale commercial fisheries.

Pew believes that these threats also present an opportunity. Arctic animals and traditional cultures still thrive today. The Arctic Ocean as a whole is one of the most pristine seas remaining on Earth, due in large part to its ice cover and remoteness.

Pew works with Arctic peoples, scientists, conservationists, and others to develop lasting conservation solutions so that future generations will also be able to experience the Arctic.


B.S. Halpern et al., "A Global Map of Human Impact on Marine Ecosystems," Science 319 (2008): 948–952.