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 the global climate and the focus of WWF's Arctic work is on climate change.
Arctic sea ice extent has decreased between 3.5 - 4.1% per decade between 1979 and 2012, with the most extensive decrease seen in summer and autumn, but there has been a decrease in extent in every season. The loss is now 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. Summer sea ice extent is now about one-third less than between 1979 and 2000. The record lowest sea ice extent was in 2012 and the second lowest average sea ice extent on record was in 2007. Although the sea ice reduction in September 2013 wasn't as extensive as in 2012, it is still the sixth lowest recorded.
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 is the expanding and retreating 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.
The importance of the Barents Sea
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 includes 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
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 and adapted to the very specific Arctic ice conditions. However, in only a few decades those conditions are changing radically. The increased Arctic summer sea ice retreat threatens the very survival of these ice-dependent species.
Climate change also means that the Arctic marine environment is likely to be under greater pressure for exploitation 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 Arctic, WWF is calling for the following action plan to be implemented:
- We're calling on the UK government to implement 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, 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.
- Investigate and understand the impacts of climate change on the Arctic and the effective adaptation measures are implemented.
- Reduce 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