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Arctic

Melting pack ice, Bering Sea, Russia © WWF Canon/Kevin SCHAFER

Arctic and Barents Sea

WWF is working to protect key species and habitats in the Arctic, a region threatened by global warming, oil and gas exploration and exploitation, shipping and illegal and over-fishing. The Arctic is vital to regulating global climate change and the focus of the WWF Arctic work is on climate change.

Loss of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is happening decades ahead of most predictions and is now self perpetuating as open water absorbs more sunlight and heat, accelerating the warming of the sea, leading to further ice loss. Some of the added heat warms the air and land and this can lead to release of methane and further enhance climate change through a powerful feedback to global climate change. The Arctic is vital to regulating global climate change and the focus of the WWF Arctic work is on climate change.

Polar bear © WWF-Canon / Kevin SCHAFER

Why is the Arctic important?

The Arctic is a vast area of fjords and tundra, jagged peaks and frozen seas, glaciers and icebergs, and ice and snow. Several species of animals are unique to the Arctic (e.g., polar bear, walrus, musk ox) and many species of birds have their summer home there.

There are an estimated 20,000-25,000 polar bears in the Arctic, living in 19 subpopulations. These different groups overlap considerably, and the genetic differences between them are small. Polar bears are the world's largest land predators and are top of the food chain in the Arctic, where they prey primarily on seals.

The polar bear is listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The polar bear’s habitat depends on the movement of the sea ice. As the Arctic sea ice melts in the summer, some bears follow the retreating sea ice to stay close to seals and other prey, while others become stranded and spend their summers on land.

WWF-UK is currently focusing on the Barents Sea in the Norwegian and Russian Arctic, one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world.

Delphinapterus leucas, Beluga whale, Bering Sea, Pacific Ocean

Why is the Barents Sea important?

The Barents Sea, located north of Norway and Russia, is one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world and among the most biologically diverse in the Arctic. About 70% of the world’s total white fish supply comes from Arctic waters.

It contains the world’s largest deep-water coral reef, the world’s highest density of seabirds, exceptionally large fish stocks and unique habitats for seals, whales, walrus and seabirds. There are an estimated 5,000 polar bears and around 100 bowhead whales living in this region.

The bowhead whale was protected in the 1930s after centuries of whaling drastically reduced its population. There are signs that numbers are finally starting to recover, but it remains critically endangered in this region.

Challenges and threats

Loss of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is happening decades ahead of most predictions and is now self perpetuating as open water absorbs more sunlight and heat, accelerating the warming of the sea, leading to further ice loss. Some of the added heat warms the air and land and this can lead to release of methane and further enhance climate change through a powerful feedback to global climate change.

Some Arctic species, such as narwhal, hooded and harp seals, walrus and polar bears are very dependent on particular ice conditions. These species have evolved over thousands of years to fit with the very specific Arctic ice conditions. However, in only a few decades those conditions are changing radically. The loss of the Arctic sea ice threatens the very survival of these ice-dependent species.

Climate change also means that the Arctic marine environment is likely to be more exploited in the coming decades, with retreating sea ice attracting more shipping, fisheries and oil/gas exploration. The Arctic holds the world's largest remaining untapped gas reserves and some of its largest undeveloped oil reserves.

Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, oil and gas development, shipping and the impacts of climate change are threatening a variety of marine species and habitats.

More than half of the entire world’s cod comes from the Barents Sea – the UK being a significant market. With global cod catches having fallen by 70% over the past 30 years, it is vital that fish are sustainably managed.

WWF in Action

Dedicated to maintaining and restoring ecosystems in the Barents Sea, WWF is calling for the following action plan to be implemented:

  • We're calling on the UK government to apply a clear set of principles in its dealings with the Arctic - to help protect the region from the ongoing effects of climate change, and help ensure its natural wealth is not exploited at the expense of its indigenous peoples, environmental security, ecosystems or wildlife.
  • Identify coastal and marine areas with high conservation value in the Russian part of the Barents Sea, and plan where protected areas should be sited and highlight sensitive sites where development should not occur.
  • Promote adoption of Marine Stewardship Council sustainable fishing standards.
  • Promote the establishment of new protected areas in the most valuable Barents Sea coastal ecosystems. WWF will continue to aid the development of management plans for such areas through activities such as survey and baseline data collection – essential first steps to monitor the success of protected areas.
  • Campaign for the continued moratorium on oil drilling outside Lofoten (off the north-west coast of Norway) and train volunteers to combat oil spills.
  • Investigate and understand the impacts of climate change on the Arctic and the effective adaptation measures are implemented.
  • Reducing the threats and impacts of IUU fishing on the marine ecosystem.

More information about the WWF Arctic programme can be found at: www.panda.org/arctic

The Catlin Arctic Survey
The Catlin Arctic Survey team of environmentalists and scientists, in partnership with WWF, carried out research in the Arctic to discover more information about the Arctic sea ice, such as how much of it is really left and how fast it is melting.

After 73 gruelling days covering 434 kilometres of treacherous and freezing conditions, taking thousands of snow and ice measurements and enduring both physical and technological difficulties, the Catlin Arctic Survey team of Pen Hadow, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley are back in the UK. The data will be used to improve the accuracy and reliability of models for forecasting the timing of the disappearance of the sea ice, and the associated impacts for our changing global climate.

Find out more about the Catlin Arctic Survey

Successes
Recent years have seen significant progress in reducing IUU fishing in the Barents Sea. IUU fishing in the Barents Sea has now been reduced by 50%.

How you can help

Adopt a polar bear

Climate change

Temperature increases, a near-record loss of summer sea ice, and a melting of surface ice in Greenland are among some of the evidence of continued warming in the Arctic, according to an annual review of conditions in the Arctic.
Read the annual review of conditions in the Arctic

Marine update 61 - Assessing the impacts of climate change in the Arctic

Latest news

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