Supposing that the melting Arctic ice isn’t causing sea levels to rise… supposing that it’s not displacing polar bears and other mammals… supposing that it’s not putting the world’s fresh water supply at risk… supposing all of those reasons were neither valid nor a cause for concern, now there’s fear that invasive species will spread into foreign ecosystems due to this rapidly melting ice.
With two-million-year-old ice blockades now out of the way, a pair of new shipping routes have opened. The Northwest Passage goes through Canada, while the Northern Sea Route connects the Bering Sea and Barents Sea from Russia all the way to Norway. As the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center worries, these passageways are leaving ecosystems vulnerable to outside organisms taking over.
Introducing new life forms into other ecosystems is a volatile situation. Precedent has shown us that a new species can take over a stable environment and ravage other species that have lived in an area for centuries. See “5 Terrible Lessons Learned from Invasive Species” for some real world examples.
Meanwhile, the shipping industry has already begun looking at the melting ice as a moneymaking opportunity rather than an environmental disaster waiting to happen. Cutting through Arctic seas has never been faster and easier.
Looking forward, these ship passages will likely open new industries. Cruises and other sea-based tourism in the area are becoming increasingly more practical without polar ice. And while the Arctic has already been exploited for natural gas, having easier access to these resources will only boost the industry.
In other words, we should expect to see barges transporting people, cargo – and yes – invasive organisms between these melted expressways frequently. Scientists are already predicting that ship traffic will increase by 20% each year.
Although passage between newly available areas was previously uncommon, it also wasn’t unheard of. The longer routes did help to prevent invasive species from spreading, however, as these organisms were less like to survive the lengthy trips. The shorter voyages – made possible by reduced glacier obstacles — give foreign organisms a much better chance of reaching the destination.
It’s not just marine life that’s at risk, either, as land creatures are similarly in jeopardy. Species like insects can stowaway on boats and cause trouble in a new ecosystem.
Greg Ruiz, one of the authors of the research, is optimistic that catastrophe can be prevented. “The good news is that the Arctic ecosystem is still relatively intact and has had low exposure to invasions until now,” he said. “This novel corridor is only just opening. Now is the time to advance effective management options that prevent a boom in invasions and minimize their ecological, economic, and health impacts.”
Is that realistic, though? Isn’t the corporate approach of pursuing immediate profit, consequences be damned, the catalyst for this environmental crisis? Expecting that shipping companies and international legislators will make responsible choices to avoid wrecking ecosystems seems pretty naïve.