Arctic Refuge Hit With Double-Whammy: Climate Change and Oil Development
By Dan Ritzman
Migrations are the heartbeat of life in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Groups of thousands of caribou course across the landscape as they complete the longest migration of any land animal in North America. Arctic terns appear to be avenging angels as they guard their nests on riverside gravel bars; these birds have traveled 12,000 miles from Antarctica to find the perfect nest spot and they will let you know you are not welcome nearby. And I just completed what has become my annual migration. For more than two decades I have been traveling north each summer to experience the endless daylight, vast landscapes and stunning wildlife of the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge.
Gwich'in leader Sarah James has been a strong voice for protection of the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, for decades.
Photo credit: Carly Harmon
Point Thompson, the newest oil development in Prudhoe Bay looms just a few miles from the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo credit: Dan Ritzman
A group of military veterans and military family members explore the edge of North America on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
You don't have to be a scientist to see that the coastal plain is the biological heart of our nation's wildest refuge, but if you need the numbers—the coastal plain is the nesting ground for 200 species of birds (who traveled there from every state and six continents), the calving ground and nursery for the Porcupine caribou herd and the most important on-shore denning area in Alaska for polar bears.
Not every animal present on the coastal plain hightails it out once the snow begins to fall, some have amazing adaptations to allow them to overwinter in this severe climate. On my last trip this summer we discovered the skull of a musk ox, a prehistoric-looking shaggy critter that is able to survive the deep cold. A close examination of the skull showed the spiral nasal passages that allow the frozen air the animal breathes to travel further and have more time to warm up as to prevent perpetual brain freeze. Equally fascinating is one of my favorites, the Arctic Wooly Bear Caterpillar. These are the longest lived caterpillars on the planet. They spend 7-14 years as a caterpillar before metamorphosing into a moth. During that time they spend about seven to eight months of the year frozen like a caterpillar popsicle. The three to four months they are thawed out are spent busily munching on the Arctic tundra. It takes them all those "partial" years to store up enough energy to undergo their change.
It isn't just the wildlife that are uniquely adapted to living in this landscape; the Alaska Native peoples who live above the Arctic Circle are intimately connected to the land and its rhythms. Every year Alaska Natives harvest, process, distribute and consume millions of pounds of wild animals, fish and plants through an economy and way of life that has come to be termed "subsistence." Collectively, these varied subsistence activities constitute a way of being and relating to the world and thus comprise an essential component of Alaska Native identities and cultures.
The people and the wildlife of the Arctic Refuge are threatened by the double-whammy of climate change and oil development. Look at any of the recent maps that highlight where the world is warming the fastest and the Alaskan Arctic shows up as a fiery red blob. In fact the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The effects of this can be seen and felt on the ground—less water, more shrubs and trees and I've even noticed the change in the different species of birds showing up in the high north. Most important, the sea ice is disappearing. This disappearance spells trouble for wildlife like polar bears and the Alaska Native peoples who rely on the ice to hunt. It also has caused an increase in coastal erosion and a number of villages in the Arctic will have to be relocated or risk being washed into the sea. Scientists are telling us that the loss of this ice is leading to the unusual weather patterns we are experiencing in the rest of the world. What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic.
The Canning River forms the western boundary of the northern portion of the Arctic Refuge, separating the land owned and managed by the state of Alaska around Prudhoe Bay from the coastal plain and other wildlands of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It had been three or four years since I had last floated the Canning to the mountains, across the 30 miles of coastal plain to the coast of the Arctic Ocean. This is one of my favorite rivers, delivering a wide array of landscapes and incredible wildlife from wolves and grizzly bears in the mountains and plains, to snowy owls, yellow billed loons, golden plovers and eiders in the delta and coast. This summer I was dismayed to see a new oil field development rising ominously out of the tundra. Point Thompson is the newest and easternmost expansion of Prudhoe Bay and sits just a dozen or so miles from the edge of the Arctic Refuge. With the flat topography of the coastal plain this industrial site mars the wild character of the land.
This was a wake-up call for me. During the Bush presidency millions of Americans took action to protect the refuge and convinced the decision makes in Washington DC to say no to drilling in the refuge. This place has felt safe from drilling for the past 10 years, but here is a brand new oil field knocking on the door of the coastal plain. Now is not the time to be complacent; now is the time for action.
As a wilderness guide I have had the honor and good fortune to be able to share this special place with adventurers from across the U.S. Over the years I've traveled through this landscape with teachers, machinists, conservationists, veterans, musicians, artists, people from all walks of life and all corners of the country. To a person they have been moved by what they experienced. And many of them have been moved to take action and reached out to key decision makers to say that the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge deserves to remain forever wild. A collection of their actions can be seen here.
But the Arctic Refuge doesn't just speak to the people who have had the chance to visit. Like the migratory birds, the idea, the wildness and spirit of the Arctic Refuge touches people in every state and over the years millions of Americans have let it be known that the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is too special to drill; it deserves permanent protection.
Now is the time, before the oil fields creep one inch closer to this treasured landscape, to raise our voices and protect the this place once and for all.
Dan Ritzman is the Alaska program director for Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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