As the Gulf oil spill continues to threaten wildlife down south, the Department of Interior is expected to make its decision Friday on exploratory oil drilling in Alaska’s ecologically rich Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Both seas are critical to Arctic wildlife as well as Native communities on the Arctic slope.
If Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar approves Shell’s plans to drill the Arctic waters on Alaska’s north coast, one of the world’s most unique ecosystems will be exposed to the same kind of risks that opened the Gulf to ecological catastrophe.
Impacts could be immediate – oiled and poisoned birds, seals, and polar bears—as well as long-lasting– species and habitat damage that could ripple through the entire Arctic food chain.
It may be easy to dismiss the Arctic as a remote, barren place. ‘What’s a little oil drilling under tons of frozen ice?’ some might pose.
The reality is entirely different.
The waters in these two seas, sometimes called the Polar Bear Seas, may be frozen for the majority of the year but they support an amazing and intricate web of life adapted for the ice. From the shallow waters of the Chukchi, which give life to an abundant sea floor habitat, to the walruses, seals and threatened polar bears that are struggling as sea ice rapidly recedes, these ecosystems are rich yet fragile.
Ringed, ribbon and bearded seals; beluga, bowhead, and gray whales; cod and salmon; millions of birds, like the King Eider and the Kittlitz’s Murrelet; and many other species call these seas and coastal areas home, as do Alaska Native peoples.
The Chukchi and Beaufort are also home to the United States’ only polar bear population and 90 percent of the entire Pacific walrus population.
All of this – the birds and bears, walruses and whales – could be devastated should an oil spill happen.
What an oil spill in icy, animal-rich waters might look like:
Little is known about oil spills in ice-filled waters, but what is apparent is that oil tends to collect in between and under breaks in the sea ice, a disturbing fact when you consider that many Arctic animals spend a great amount of time submerged or resting at water’s edge near these ice breaks. For birds and marine mammals, the ice-free water is the passageway to rich hunting and fishing grounds below. Fish and aquatic animals are drawn there for the unique algae and tiny crustaceans that populate ice edge. These breaks in the ice are also where polar bears hunt seals.
If a massive oil spill were to occur in the Arctic, the impacts could be longer-term and more severe than any we’ve seen in more temperate climates.
Low temperatures, limited sunlight and short growth and reproduction seasons, plus the fact that ecosystems are already struggling under climate change, make it less likely that Arctic ecosystems could fully recover from a spill.
Also worth pointing out is that the oil industry has no proven technology for cleaning up oil spills in icy waters. The presence of sea ice complicates clean-ups, not to mention that treacherous weather makes it difficult, if not impossible, for rescue and response workers to physically arrive to the site of an emergency.
Of course, oil destroys the insulation and waterproofing qualities of bird feathers, particularly important for birds in Arctic climes. Polar bears, furred seals and any fur bearing animal also lose insulation if their coats come into direct contact with oil. Seal pups, who lack blubber, are especially vulnerable to death by hypothermia or to becoming easy prey if matted oil interferes with movement of their flippers.
All of these animals are at risk for eating prey that is contaminated with oil, or ingesting oil or inhaling oil while resting at the water’s surface or by cleaning themselves. Food sources for coastal communities could also be contaminated. Drilling for oil in Arctic waters could disturb critical feeding habitats and age-old migration routes.
This doesn’t even get at the indirect impacts to animals that live in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, along the coast of the Beaufort Sea.
There simply is not enough oil off of our shores to make America energy independent or to reduce gas prices. So is it worth forever damaging these fragile ecosystems?
There’s nothing we can do to roll back the last oil spill, but we can prevent the next terrible one from happening in the Arctic.
The best way to make sure the Arctic’s majestic animals are not exposed to an oil spill is to stop this risky business of drilling from going forward. Let’s hope the Department of Interior makes the responsible choice. And that Congress, instead of expanding offshore oil drilling, passes climate legislation that focuses on innovation and investment in clean, renewable, carbon-free energy that creates jobs and protects our coastal communities, economies and ecosystems.
Laura Bailey is the Web Editor for The Wilderness Society.
Courtesy of NOAA
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