Friday, August 24, 2012

There's a hole in the middle

Where will these guys go?
Here is my slightly depressing view of what's happening in the Arctic which mainstream news seems to be ignoring (this is just my opinion).

Two stories recently came out about Prime Minister Harper's plans for the Arctic - both of which I find disturbing. The first is the announcement of a new Arctic research station with priority on resource development. This announcement came as news of another Arctic research station, one that focuses on climate science and is much cheaper to run, is closing due to canceled funds.

The second is the announcement of a new national park, Naats'ihch'oh National Park Reserve, NWT. This park's northern boundary is deeply indented to allow for mining exploration. Is this new park for wildlife? Or was the park established so roads can be built for mining exploration and development? Talk about a subsidy to the mining industry if roads are built on someone else's budget. The result is a mostly-protected watershed (86% according to Parks Canada's website) - which doesn't sound protected at all. An industrial accident could easily contaminate the whole watershed.

I can't help but think our government views resource development as the only important thing the Arctic offers. Right now, we have an opportunity to learn from our past environmental mistakes and protect a large contiguous wild space. This is a rare opportunity in human history. Here are my two good reasons to care about the Arctic that are relevant to those of us who live further south and there are plenty of other good reasons.

All our oceans are connected. The Arctic Ocean acts as a bridge between the Pacific and Atlantic - waters from the Pacific flow through the Arctic Ocean and exit into the Atlantic, plus some Atlantic water circulates through. While water is in the Arctic Ocean the cold modifies it, cooling it down and making it salty by brine rejection from sea ice. The result is denser water. This cold, dense water sinks when it reaches the Atlantic, making the Atlantic one of the two places deep ocean water is formed (Antarctica is the other place). Warm return currents, like the Gulf Stream, replace this sinking water, while keeping Northern Europe warm.

Let's say we heat up the Arctic Ocean to the point where all the sea ice melts (this summer is already on its way to the history books as a minimum for pack ice). This melted water may still be cold, however it will be fresh. Since fresh water is less dense than salty water, it may just float on the surface spreading out across the Atlantic. The surrounding land masses (Europe and North America) would experience a cooler climate. This is an extremely simplified view of the result of warming the Arctic.

Second, although plenty of wildlife survives in the Arctic, the food web there is relatively simple compared to southern ecosystems. At each level in the food web there may only be one or two species. This simplicity means that if we drive a single species to extinction (for example, by building a mine or a highway over a traditional migration path, or a chemical spill, or siltation destroying fish spawning habitat) the food web could collapse.

Already, a changes in top predators (if we ignore that humans are the true top predator) is occurring - polar bears are giving way to killer whales. Shrinking ice will only make life harder for the polar bears since they will have to migrate farther from pack ice to shore each year. This is particularly tough on cubs which lack their parent's endurance. All life in the Arctic will be forced to adapt to a reduction or loss of pack ice - or go extinct.

For those who don't care if there are any animals in the Arctic, plenty of animals migrate to the Arctic each year for rich summer feeding grounds - if these feeding grounds are changed, who knows what the impact will be. Imagine the Arctic with luxuriant vegetation in summer - Snow Geese likely will benefit and their population will swell. That may have an impact on grain farms in the south - even today geese raid fields to get extra energy for their migration. But hey, why worry - the mining and oil industry is making money.

Why don’t we just stop resource development in fragile places - or at least take a good look at what the impacts will be instead of just putting our heads into the sand? Just because a resource is present, it doesn't necessarily need to be pulled out of the ground for short term gain (money). Instead of looking to extract more resources like fossil fuels, we should look at ways to reduce our reliance on them. Ultimately, keeping a place wild is a good enough reason to protect our Arctic. We cannot develop mines and industry adjacent to every wild "park" and expect life to thrive.

Note: the picture came from here.

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