The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, and the impacts for local communities and wildlife are already being felt. The loss of summer sea ice also opens up the Arctic to increasing industrial activity—like offshore drilling and growing ship traffic. These activities increase the risk of oil spills, ship strikes with wildlife, introduction of invasive species and other dangers.
We’ve seen what can happen when a shipping accident leads to an oil spill. The Exxon Valdez spewed nearly 11 million gallons of oil into the waters of Prince William Sound over the course of three days. That incident led to the deaths of 22 orcas, 250 bald eagles, 300 harbor seals, 2,800 sea otters and more than 100,000 sea birds. Oil from the spill can still be found today and some places may be as toxic as they were nearly three decades ago. But the Valdez oil spill occurred in a relatively temperate region of Alaska near to shore. A similar event in the icy and remote waters of the Arctic Ocean could be magnitudes worse and would be virtually impossible to clean.
And we’ve already seen clear signals of the dangers presented by drilling in dangerous Arctic conditions. In late December of 2012, one of Shell Oil’s Arctic drillships, the Kulluk, snapped its tow-line during a powerful storm that arose as it was being brought back to the lower-48. After multiple failed attempts to re-establish a tow, the Coast Guard evacuated the crew of the Kulluk, rescue tugs abandoned their efforts to pull the ship to safety, and the Kulluk grounded on Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak, Alaska.
As climate change increasingly melts Arctic sea ice, vessel traffic through the Bering Strait is projected to increase between 100 – 500% by 2025. In the fall of 2016, the cruise ship Crystal Serenity became yet another symbol of a changing Arctic as she became the first large luxury cruise ship to journey through the Northwest Passage.
Increased vessel traffic in the Arctic will have a disproportionate impact on the narrow passage of the Bering Strait: it is the only marine gateway between the Pacific and the Arctic. The Bering Strait is also home to one of the largest wildlife migrations on Earth, creating the potential for ship strikes of whales and other wildlife competing for space in the narrow passage.
As a science-based conservation organization with a deep commitment to the Arctic, Ocean Conservancy is working to better understand and minimize these risks by advocating measures such as designated shipping routes, Areas to Be Avoided and integrated Arctic management with local communities and partners.