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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Johnny Wood
What better place to build a Doomsday Vault than the remote, snow-covered islands of Norway's Arctic Svalbard? Sitting around 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole, the facility is buried in permafrost to protect the precious seed samples housed there. But a freak heatwave is causing the region's ice to melt.
Deep Trouble?<p>The <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-it-s-like-inside-the-doomsday-vault-that-stores-every-known-crop-on-the-planet" target="_blank">Svalbard Global Seed Vault</a> – also known as the Doomsday Vault – is a gigantic bunker, sitting deep inside a mountain surrounded by snowy wastelands. The facility stores close to <a href="https://www.seedvault.no/about/the-facility/" target="_blank">900,000 seed samples</a> from around the world and acts as a sort of back-up plan for agriculture, should disaster render parts of the planet unlivable or the world suffer a catastrophe, such as nuclear war or extreme climate change.</p><p>It's been described as an "<a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/2235116-svalbard-doomsday-vault-gets-first-big-seed-deposit-since-upgrade/" target="_blank">insurance policy for food security</a>."</p><p>Inside the vault, <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-it-s-like-inside-the-doomsday-vault-that-stores-every-known-crop-on-the-planet" target="_blank">temperatures are kept below minus 18℃</a>, cold enough to keep the seed samples safe for at least 200 years, even without backup power. But climate change is causing problems for the vault.</p><p>In 2016, which was the <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2841/2018-fourth-warmest-year-in-continued-warming-trend-according-to-nasa-noaa/" target="_blank">warmest year on record according to NASA</a>, soaring temperatures caused <a href="https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/20/doomsday-arctic-seed-vault-breached-permafrost-melts/" target="_blank">meltwater to breach the vault's entrance tunnel</a>. While no seeds were damaged, the <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/svalbard-home-of-the-doomsday-vault-just-recorded-its-highest-ever-temperature" target="_blank">floodwater left an expensive repair bill</a> and tarnished the vault's reputation as impregnable to natural or manmade disasters.<span></span><br></p>
The Heat Is On<p>Warming in the islands has been underway for some time. Figures for 2017 show average temperatures are between 3-5℃ hotter than in 1971, according to the <a href="https://www.miljodirektoratet.no/globalassets/publikasjoner/M1242/M1242.pdf" target="_blank">Climate in Svalbard 2100</a> report, with the largest increases affecting the inner fjords.</p><p><span></span>Between 2071 and 2100, average temperatures throughout the archipelago will increase by between 7-10℃, the report predicts, shortening the snow season and causing loss of near-surface permafrost.</p><p><span></span>What's happening in Svalbard is symptomatic of wider changes impacting the Arctic expanse, which is <a href="https://www.upi.com/Science_News/2018/12/12/NOAA-Arctic-warming-at-twice-the-rate-of-the-rest-of-the-planet/5141544580754/" target="_blank">warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet</a>. Parts of the <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2019GL082187" target="_blank">Canadian Arctic are thawing 70 years earlier than predicted</a>, scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks found, a sign that climate change could be happening faster than first thought.</p><p>As warmer-than-average summers destabilize permafrost, much of which has lain frozen for millennia, methane and other gases trapped in the ice could be released at scale, accelerating climate change. In turn, warmer temperatures would lead to further permafrost loss.<br><br>Melting ice, on land and at sea, <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/11-arctic-species-affected-climate-change" target="_blank">destroys animal habitats for species like polar bears and Arctic foxes</a>, which use their snowy white coats as camouflage either to hunt for food or avoid predators.</p>
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By Scott L. Montgomery
The Trump administration has announced that it is opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development – the latest twist in a decades-long battle over the fate of this remote area. Its timing is truly terrible.
Years of Debate<p>ANWR is inarguably an ecological treasure. With 45 species of mammals and over 200 species of birds from six continents, the refuge <a href="https://www.amnh.org/explore/science-bulletins/earth/documentaries/reading-the-rocks-the-search-for-oil-in-anwr/essay-northern-alaska-rich-in-wildlife-and-oil/" target="_blank">is more biodiverse</a> than almost any area in the Arctic.</p><p>This is especially true of the 1002 <a href="https://www.fws.gov/refuge/arctic/wildlife_habitat.html" target="_blank">coastal plain portion</a>, which has the largest number of polar bear dens in Alaska. It also supports <a href="https://theconversation.com/scientist-at-work-tracking-muskoxen-in-a-warming-arctic-70378" target="_blank">muskoxen</a>, Arctic wolves, foxes, hares, migrating waterfowl and Porcupine caribou, which calve there. Most of ANWR is designated as wilderness, which puts it off-limits for development. But this <a href="https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL33872.pdf" target="_blank">does not include the 1002 Area</a>, which was recognized as a promising area for energy development when the refuge was created in 1980 and left that way after a 1987 study confirmed its potential.</p><p>Climate change is causing <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">especially rapid warming in the Arctic</a>, with probable negative effects for many of these species. Environmental advocates argue that fossil fuel production in ANWR will <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/protect-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge" target="_blank">add to this process</a>, damaging habitat and impacting the <a href="https://www.alaskapublic.org/2019/07/02/in-arctic-village-gwichin-leaders-say-the-fight-to-stop-drilling-in-the-arctic-refuge-isnt-over/" target="_blank">Indigenous people who rely on the wildlife</a> for subsistence. But the situation is complex: There are also <a href="https://www.ktoo.org/2019/07/02/in-the-alaska-village-where-anwr-is-the-backyard-many-see-drilling-as-an-opportunity/" target="_blank">Indigenous groups who support ANWR development</a> for the jobs and income it would bring.</p><p>Energy companies' interest in ANWR, meanwhile, has risen and fallen over time. The discovery of oil at <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prudhoe_Bay_Oil_Field" target="_blank">Prudhoe Bay</a> in 1968, followed by <a href="https://www.cfr.org/timeline/oil-dependence-and-us-foreign-policy" target="_blank">two oil shocks in the 1970s</a>, sparked support for exploration and production in the region. But this enthusiasm faded in the late 1980s and '90s in the face of fierce political and legal opposition and years of low oil prices.</p>
A majority of Americas of all political leanings believe the U.S. should develop alternative energy sources rather than expanding production of oil, coal and natural gas. Pew Research Center, CC BY-ND
Is ANWR Oil Worth It?<p>Today the oil industry is facing its greatest set of challenges in modern history. They include:</p><ul><li>A collapse in oil demand and prices due to the global pandemic, with a sluggish and <a href="https://www.iea.org/reports/oil-market-report-august-2020" target="_blank">uncertain recovery</a></li><li>Companies canceling and reducing activity worldwide, with bankruptcies in the U.S. shale industry and <a href="https://energynow.com/2020/08/u-s-oil-gas-rig-count-falls-to-record-low-for-14th-week-baker-hughes/" target="_blank">drilling rig counts</a> falling back to 1940 levels</li><li>New uncertainty about future global oil demand as climate concerns push public interest and government policy toward electric vehicles, and automakers respond with new EV designs</li><li>The growing possibility of Democratic victories in the November 2020 elections, which would likely lead to policies reducing fossil fuel use</li><li>Increasing <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-climate-change-barclays/barclays-pressured-by-shareholders-to-cut-fossil-fuel-financing-idUSKBN1Z700F" target="_blank">investor pressure</a> on banks and investment firms to reduce or eliminate support for fossil fuel projects.</li></ul><p>All of these factors compound the challenges of leasing and drilling in ANWR. Well costs there would be among the highest anywhere onshore in the U.S. Only one well has ever been drilled in the area, so new drilling would be purely exploratory and have a lower chance of success than in better-studied areas. Under these conditions, it would make more sense for companies that are active on Alaska's North Slope to pursue sites they currently have under lease, which pose much lower risk.</p>
Alaska's North Slope outside of ANWR remains rich in oil, according to the latest U.S. Geological Survey assessment. USGS<p>What's more, as I have <a href="https://theconversation.com/large-scale-fracking-comes-to-the-arctic-in-a-new-alaska-oil-boom-75683#comment_1264055" target="_blank">argued previously</a>, it's not clear that there's a need to drill in ANWR. Energy companies have made new discoveries elsewhere south and west of Prudhoe Bay – most recently, the <a href="https://www.rigzone.com/news/pantheon_resources_makes_alaska_north_slope_discovery-13-apr-2020-161730-article/" target="_blank">Talitha Field</a>, which could yield 500 million barrels or more.</p><p>Companies that pursue leases in ANWR also will have to weigh the prospects of litigation, investor anger and a tarnished brand – especially large firms with public name recognition. Shell's experience in 2015, when it <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/09/28/shell-backtracks-on-controversial-arctic-drilling-plan/" target="_blank">abandoned plans to drill offshore in the Arctic</a> under heavy pressure, indicate what other companies can expect.</p><p>If Trump is voted out of office, I expect that a Biden administration would quickly move to <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/06/most-trump-environmental-rollbacks-will-take-years-to-be-reversed/" target="_blank">reverse</a> the directive for leasing in ANWR. In my view, this contested area will have far more meaning and value as a wildlife refuge in a warming world that is starting to seriously move away from hydrocarbon energy.</p>
By Krissy Waite
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Ringed seals spend most of the year hidden in icy Arctic waters, breathing through holes they create in the thick sea ice.
But when seal pups are born each spring, they don't have a blubber layer, which is their protection from cold.
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Update, June 20: The starving polar bear who has been wandering around the Siberian city of Norilsk for four days was captured Thursday by wildlife experts from the Royev Ruchey Zoo, The Siberian Times reported. She is in a "dangerous state" after eating human garbage and will be flown to the zoo tomorrow for treatment, experts said.
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The Trump administration has initialized the final steps to open up nearly 1.6 million acres of the protected Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to allow oil and gas drilling.
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The move comes after regional authorities declared a state of emergency over the weekend after sightings of more than 50 bears in the town of Belushya Guba since December.
Media reports and video footage show the bears eating garbage, appearing near school grounds and entering buildings and residential homes.
The climate crisis is accelerating the rate of change in Alaska's marine ecosystem far faster than scientists had previously thought, causing possibly irreversible changes, according to new research, as Newsweek reported.
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The largest Arctic research expedition in history returned to Germany Monday after 13 months in the Arctic, including several months with its ship deliberately trapped by sea ice, according to The New York Times.