Scientists Urge Greater Protection for Arctic as Ice Recedes

A group of scientists and representatives of indigenous Arctic communities has identified areas around the Arctic Ocean that they consider especially worthy of consideration for protection as sea ice recedes and industry poises to enter the increasingly accessible high northern latitudes. The report, released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, maps out 13 areas that are of particular ecological and biological significance or are especially vulnerable to human intrusion. They range from the Bering Strait to perennial gaps in the ice off Russia and Greenland.

The predictable retreat of Arctic sea ice under global warming presents one last opportunity to adopt effective marine management practices before, rather than after, an ocean is opened up to development, says Lisa Speer of NRDC in New York City, who co-authored the workshop report. "It's been our experience that, once you have offshore oil and gas or shipping or fishing, it becomes much more difficult to protect key ecosystems," she says. "We haven't been proactive in the past. Now we have a short window of opportunity to do it right."

Implementing the report's recommendations—a total of 77 areas are flagged as worthy of protection—will be a challenge, however. The 13 highest-priority areas together cover almost the entire margin of the Arctic Ocean and include a broad swath of pack ice that should linger against northern Greenland and adjacent Canadian islands after the rest of the ice is gone. Any agreement will require cooperation among the eight Arctic nations, which include the United States and Russia. Foreign ministers of the Arctic Eight meet next month in Nuuk, Greenland, when the agenda will include management practices in the melting Arctic.