In the far reaches of Alaska and Canada, past seemingly endless lichen-covered tundra and pebble-strewn shores, the North American continent dips into one of the world’s most extraordinary environments: the Arctic Ocean. Here, untamed seas and a horizon of ice form an irreplaceable and rich seascape at the top of the world, a unique ecosystem that few people even know exists.
Today, proposals to vastly alter this seascape are underway. The US federal government is moving to open some 83 million acres of Alaska’s seas for oil and gas development. Two of the areas proposed for fossil fuel extraction – Bristol Bay and Lower Cook Inlet – are well known as tourist and fishing destinations. The others, the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, are relatively unknown.
These seas obscurity is facilitating the rapid pace at which the plan for oil leasing is moving forward. While protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) on Alaska’s North Slope has become a cause célèbre in recent years, efforts to open up the nearby ocean waters to drilling have received less attention. Yet the stakes are just as high. As global warming reduces the amount of ice in the polar ocean, extracting the oil underneath the water will become easier, making the region increasingly attractive to petroleum companies. If the oil industry has its way, in 40 years the now-pristine Arctic seas could be as jammed with offshore oil extraction as the Gulf of Mexico is today.
And that, say local Native communities, marine biologists, and environmental groups, would be a disaster. Oil exploration and extraction will place at risk the Arctic’s remarkable assortment of whales, walrus, seals, birds, fish, and polar bears, as well as the cultural life-ways of the Inupiat people who have lived in the area for more than 2,500 years. It’s a threat that this ecosystem – already suffering from the weather shifts from climate change – cannot tolerate.
“Offshore oil and gas development unacceptably aggravates the assault Arctic species are already experiencing with global warming,” Deborah Williams, president of Alaska Conservation Solutions, says. “We should be taking every appropriate measure to protect these species as opposed to aggravating their situation.”
For many, climate change is a dire threat to the planet’s biological systems; for others, it is an exciting opportunity for increased global development. Reduced polar sea ice would allow for the opening of the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean, the long-sought Holy Grail of world transport. Allowing ships to bypass the Panama Canal, an ice-free northern sea would turn the Arctic Ocean into a major marine highway and tanker route.
Proposals to open up the Arctic seas to oil drilling would also alter its nature. The US Geological Survey estimates that up to 25 percent of global oil and gas reserves may lie in the Arctic zone. Russia and Norway are currently developing their oil and gas fields in the Barents Sea. Russia is exploring the Kara Sea and has its eyes set on the Eastern Siberian Sea as well. Canada is exploring potential oil deposits at the heart of bowhead whale summer feeding sites in the Beaufort Sea’s Mackenzie Delta, and is expanding offshore development near the Arctic Islands. The US is now joining this flurry of Arctic industrial activity.
The oil and gas plans for Alaska’s outer continental shelf (OCS in government parlance) are extensive. Oil exploration and eventually extraction would spread across Alaska’s seas from the Canadian border to the middle of the western coast of Alaska. With added development on the Canadian side, the entire length of the Beaufort Sea would have oil and gas activity. One of these areas is adjacent to the Arctic Refuge. Other protected areas that could be affected by proposed oil development include the Alaska Maritime and Selawik National Wildlife Refuges, the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, and Cape Krusenstern National Monument.
The Minerals Management Service (MMS), a branch of the Department of the Interior, is the agency charged with administration of oil and gas leases in the outer continental shelf. Every five years, the MMS produces new leasing plans for regions open to offshore energy production. The Oil & Gas Leasing Program for 2007–2012 (often referred to simply as the “Five-Year Plan”) includes areas in the Lower Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay, Beaufort Sea, and Chukchi Seas in Alaska, as well as sites in the Gulf of Mexico and off Virginia. Congress has an opportunity to review the plans and request changes, but the plan does not require Congressional approval. If Congress takes no action within 60 days of MMS publishing the proposal, the plan goes into law.
While Alaskan natives and environmentalist allies are currently lobbying Congress to change the proposed Five- Year Plan, as of press time it appears unlikely that Congress will intervene. If Congress does not take action before early July 2007, thousands of square miles of the Arctic Ocean will be open for oil exploration and leasing.
The MMS’s critical role in determining the future of America’s coasts and oceans is rife with conflicts of interest, opponents of the plan say. The MMS is charged with selling oil and gas leases while it is also responsible for evaluating the environmental impacts of those leases and devising monitoring and mitigation protocols. The MMS is required to earn income from its leases, creating a clear incentive to approve more exploration and drilling.
“MMS environmental impact findings are over-weighted towards development,” says Pamela A. Miller, Arctic Coordinator of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. “They are the fox watching the henhouse.”
Environmental groups such as Miller’s have expressed concerns about the quality and integrity of the MMS’s science. The Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for Chukchi Sea leases and the Five-Year Plan conclude that there will be few long-range significant impacts on the sea’s ecosystem, a claim that many find hard to believe. “Many of their conclusions defy basic logic and in many cases contradict other conclusions found in the EIS itself,” Miller says. “The research provided is profoundly insufficient.”
One key flaw in the government’s findings is that there is simply not sufficient baseline information to measure the effects on the ocean’s species. At an agency monitoring meeting for the Chukchi Sea in November 2006, several federal scientists acknowledged a troubling lack of data about existing wildlife populations necessary for adequate monitoring.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) comments on the Chukchi Sea Lease EIS cite a “lack of data regarding the distribution, abundance, and habitat use of important biological and subsistence resources in the area….” The most obvious gap is population data, without which determining cumulative impacts could prove difficult or impossible. Cumulative and oil spill impacts on endangered species and human health and “the effects of multiple, overlapping, and fast-tracked planning processes” concern the EPA.
problems posed by the lack of information can be witnessed in the MMSs
plan for a walrus-tagging study this coming summer. The area where the
MMS will conduct the study is also scheduled for seismic testing for
oil exploration. Because walrus are
particularly sensitive to noise, it’s unclear whether the seismic tests will skew the results of the population study. That is, the studies necessary to determine the impacts of oil exploration are already being impacted by the very same oil exploration.
Comments submitted to the government by a coalition of environmental groups on the Five-Year Plan conclude: “The Five-Year Plan is premature given the lack of baseline scientific data, and fails to admit the lack of relevant information.”
The above concerns reveal the challenges with protecting this region. These Arctic seas are one of the world’s most valuable seascapes, rich with unique birds, fish, and marine mammals, and Arctic culture – a world that should be treasured, not sacrificed.
Scientists know the Northern Bering and Chukchi Seas as one of the most abundant marine ecosystems in the world. At its northernmost tip, the Bering Strait creates a gateway to the Chukchi Sea, which is cradled between the Chukotka Peninsula of Russia and Alaska’s northwestern coast. A shallow ocean shelf runs underneath the two seas all the way to the Beaufort Sea on the Canadian border. On the Russian side lies Wrangel Island, a nature reserve and World Heritage Site famous for its nesting birds, polar bear denning sites, and walrus haul-outs.
What makes these seas so fertile is a unique combination of cold temperatures, strong ocean currents, long days of summer light, nutrients from the deep sea, and ice. The results are phenomenal phytoplankton and sea algae blooms, which provide the base of the food web. These seas exceptional shallowness helps makes possible this high plankton and algae productivity. The Northeastern Bering Sea has a depth of less than 500 feet, while the Chukchi Sea averages 165 feet.
These waters are champions when it comes to seafloor life. According to Jackie M. Grebmeier, a scientist who has researched the region for almost 25 years, “The Bering and Chukchi Seas contain some of the highest faunal biomass in the Arctic, as well as in the world ocean.” Grebmeier explains that a shallow sea means a shorter water column, thus allowing more food to arrive on the seafloor.
The sea also benefits from the nutrient remains that wash in from the Bering Sea, Grebmeier says. A sumptuous palate of phytoplankton and sea algae allows a diversity of bottom-dwelling prey – including record-level clam and mussel beds – to flourish. Icy water temperatures inhibit populations of bigger prey fishes such as salmon and pollock that would eat the plankton before it reached the seafloor. That means more food for wildlife specialized to feed from the ocean floor – species like walrus, bearded seal, gray whales, and deep-diving sea birds.
The Chukchi Sea’s nutritious waters flow into Alaska’s Beaufort Sea, the Arctic Ocean, and into the Eastern Siberian Sea, contributing to a stable global climate and healthy oceans. The cold waters of Arctic seas intermingle with warm Atlantic waters in the Arctic Ocean and stabilize weather patterns. While the Chukchi is the most productive, the other seas provide critical habitats and feeding grounds for Arctic wildlife. The Beaufort Sea, for example, is a major migration route and summer destination for many bowhead and beluga whales, seals, and birds such as tundra swans, loons, and the long-tailed duck.
What sets the Arctic apart is sea ice. The global importance of ice is increasingly recognized as scientists study the effects of climate change. In Arctic waters, ice functions to keep water temperatures stable, reduce storms, and keep the planet cool by reflecting the sun’s rays. Particularly important is the sea ice edge.
With spring and summer, more light flows in, further energizing sea algae and phytoplankton blooms. Arctic fishes (Arctic cod, for instance) congregate along the ice edge as they nibble at plankton. Following the fish movements at the ice edge are many of the Arctic’s marine mammals, including whales, walrus, and seals. Throughout the year, the ice edge is a resting and feeding area for migratory and annual residents of the Arctic.
Bowhead whales are the most anxious for summer’s call, eagerly pushing into the northern seas before the ice has even begun its breakup. This whale’s ability to find open water is uncanny. A year-round resident of Arctic waters, the bowhead whale follows the extension and retreat of the sea ice. The 8,000 to 10,000-strong bowhead population migrates from its winter hold-outs in the northern Bering Sea through the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and into Canadas Mackenzie Delta for summer.
Too small to bang holes in the ice to breathe – as the bowhead whale is sometimes able to do – the beluga whale follows in the bowhead’s wake in the spring trek north. Beluga whales are an ice-dependent species, relying on Arctic cod for sustenance. All of Alaska’s beluga whales winter in the northern Bering Sea. In the summer, some belugas head for the Beaufort Sea waters around Canada for summer nursing and feeding, while another group cruises the Chukchi Sea and congregates in lagoons, estuaries, and bays.
Arctic seals and walrus also thrive at the ice edge, which they use as a floating rest stop. Walrus and bearded seals rely on the ice to guide their migrations as they follow the ice edge north in summer to the Chukchi and south to the Bering Sea for the winter. Seal and walrus pups depend on the ice to relax, as a launching pad for swim practice, and as protection from marine predators. The ringed seal is wholly reliant on the ice for birthing, weaning and housing its young in ice lairs. Spotted and ribbon seal also follow the retreat of the summer ice, but once pups are weaned, they cruise open water, seeking bays and estuaries.
A host of year-round and summer season birds also call the ice edge home, a place where they can gorge on plankton, fish, and sea floor prey. Some, such as the Arctic tern and short-tailed shearwater, travel thousands of miles from their breeding habitats in the Southern Hemisphere to relish the productivity of the Arctic. Making the longest known flight of any bird, the Bar-tailed godwit, a small shorebird, flies non-stop to New Zealand for winter – a 6,800-mile one-way trip. Year-round bird species include murres, auklets, kittiwakes, puffins, guillemots, Kittlitz’s murrelet, and gulls. These Arctic and subarctic residents take advantage of a coastline dotted with estuaries, bays, inlets, and lagoons, where they raise their hardy young. Bringing color to the coast, the common, king, spectacled, and Stellar’s eider gobble up sea floor delicacies in shallow waters. These resilient sea ducks are able to dive amazing distances – up to 230 feet – to feed. Scientists have found tens of thousands of spectacled eiders huddled together for the winter months in open water areas of the pack ice. Ledyard Bay, off the Chukchi coast, is a favored molting areas for eiders. The spectacled and Stellar’s eider are listed as threatened species; the Kittlitzs murrelet may soon be included on the threatened list.
Prowling the top of this web of life is the polar bear. Ten thousand years of adaptation has specialized this bear into the ice-dependant species it is today. Alaska has two polar bear populations. One calls the Beaufort Sea home, while the other traverses the Chukchi Sea from Russia to Alaska; they overlap between Pt. Hope and Pt. Barrow. Polar bears are often accompanied by the Arctic fox, a persistent canine that is the only land mammal that regularly navigates the sea ice, usually seeking the scraps from the polar bear’s kill.
The captivating seascape described here would not exist were it not for the sea ice, nor would many of its Arctic residents. By reducing the sea ice, steadily rising temperatures due to carbon dioxide emissions are jeopardizing the future of seals, walrus, beluga whales, and the polar bear.
During the summer of 2004, several baby walrus were found floating beyond the 3,000-foot deep northern edge of the Chukchi Sea. It is exceedingly rare for a walrus female to abandon her calf. Yet that is what happened as the ice retreated over waters too deep to feed in, dooming the calves. Ringed seal pups have been found hypothermic, emaciated, or dead because their snow lairs melted before the pups were weaned.
What affects ringed seals also affects the bears. Polar bears are showing low cub survival, cannibalism, reduced body weight, and drowning due to loss of sea ice. Although adult bears can swim great distances, recent drownings indicate that they cannot cover the distances now needed. While a healthy adult bear can survive for some time land-locked, their large size requires far more nutrition than can be provided on land. In January, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the polar bear as a threatened species.
Whales are also suffering. The whales typically found in the Bering Sea are increasingly exploring the northern Chukchi. Inupiat hunters report sightings of northern right, humpback, fin, blue, orca, and minke whales. Gray whales in particular are increasing their use of the northeastern section of the Chukchi Sea. Several of these whales are endangered species.
In April 2007, the Arctic ice cap was found to be the smallest ever recorded for that month. So far an area three-quarters the size of Alaska has disappeared. The low for summer sea ice in 2006 was 2.3 million square miles, just over the 2005 record low. With the sea ice melting significantly faster than predicted, scientists are now suggesting that the planet could lose the Arctic ice cap in less than 50 years.
For Arctic species, changes are occurring too quickly to allow adaptation. Oil and gas exploration and development will only make matters worse.
The proposed developments for the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas will be among the first oil and gas development in some of the world’s harshest – yet also most fragile – ecosystems. According to Rick Steiner, a professor with the Marine Advisory Program at the University of Alaska, “Even the MMS’s mid-point estimate for Arctic seas development is bigger than all of the North Slope production to date…and the biggest push for hydrocarbons ever in the Arctic Ocean.”
While the oil industry has toyed with drilling on some close-to-shore islands in the Beaufort Sea, the Chukchi Sea has not experienced commercial oil extraction, nor has the northern reaches of the Beaufort. In short, the proposed leases will be experimental.
Although the MMS estimates substantial offshore oil development, its projections are likely conservative. Historically, government predictions of oil and gas development are notoriously low. The Prudhoe Bay complex was projected to be much smaller than it has turned out to be. Consequently, the overall environmental impacts for the North Slope were never fully considered prior to approving the development. This history puts a huge question mark on what the true cumulative impacts will be for the Five-Year Plan’s offshore leases.
“For a proposed offshore oil exploration plan as contentious and significant as this, the process used so far by MMS is entirely unacceptable,” Steiner says, Steiner notes that the government has failed to examine all of the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the plan, as required by law.
Environmental groups say the Five-Year Plan is being fast-tracked for the benefit of industry. Seismic testing started last year in the Chukchi, and exploratory wells in the Beaufort are planned for this summer. Shell Oil, BP, and ConocoPhillips are rushing to complete the studies that MMS requires for exploration permits. According to Deirdre McDonnell, a staff attorney with Earth Justice Legal Defense, the MMS did its environmental survey of the Chukchi Sea even before the Five-Year Plan has been authorized, an unusual break with government protocol.
Edward Itta, the mayor of North Slope Borough, reports that his community has struggled to keep up with the breakneck pace of public hearings and comment periods the government has set. “The activity has reached such a feverish pace that it feels like too much, too soon, too fast,” Itta says.
Critics of the government’s proposal say the imprint of oil and gas development will be significant. “Off-shore oil and gas activity creates a huge web of impacts,” says Betsy Goll, director of the Arctic Environmental Justice program at the Alaska Wilderness League. “Daily helicopter flights, increased infrastructure both on and off-land, stress to marine life from seismic tests and other damaging exploration methods, and no proven methods for safe and effective clean up of an oil-spill disaster & are serious threats.”
For starters, wild coastlines and lands would be marred with infrastructure. Animals such as walrus and seal, which use the coasts for resting and escaping predators, could find their local spots taken over by processing and waste facilities, pipeline landfall bases, docks, causeways, and ports. Breeding haunts for nesting birds may vanish. Up to 500 miles of pipelines connecting the Chukchi coast to the rest of the North Slope’s development could impair caribou migration.
Daily helicopter flights – up to 45 a day – would transform the skies. Air traffic noise could displace and scare animals, disrupting their feeding schedules. Rigs, drill ships, and offshore pipelines are also expected to impair animal migration. Huge increases in ocean vessel traffic will significantly raise bird and animal strikes and disturb their resting behaviors.
The birds, seals and beluga that rely on estuaries, bays, and inlets could be impairedby even small oil spills that make it to the coast.
Of particular concern is noise from seismic studies and icebreakers. Whales, walrus, and seals are sensitive to human-induced sounds, and research shows they move away from industrial noises. Walrus are particularly sensitive to noise, and are known to stampede, crushing pups. Research indicates that seismic activity can have even lethal effects on sea life, causing physical damage with the sonic blasts of seismic air-guns; but more study is needed. Since marine mammals rely on hearing to find prey, seismic activities could force the animals away from important feeding sites.
Oil spills are also a grave concern. “Industry has not been able to prove it can respond to an oil spill in broken ice conditions,” says the Northern Alaska Environmental Center’s Miller. “There have been no successful oil spill response tests.”
At meetings on the seismic studies planned for 2007, Michael Macrander, a biologist with Shell Oil, acknowledged that to date there are no ways to clean up oil in ice-laden conditions. The Exxon Valdez oil spill shows the difficulty industry has in even clear weather conditions and calm seas.
Skimming and containing oil when the sea has even a small amount of ice is impossible; oil could only be cleaned up if the seas were ice-free and calm. Given the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas notoriously bad weather and foggy conditions, responding to a spill would be incredibly difficult. Burning the oil is referred to often as the preferred response plan. Yet this option requires a particular set of conditions to be successful. So far, MMS and industry admit that responding to oil spills will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Three hundred miles of under-sea pipelines pose another risk. Ice keels, large pieces of ice that gouge the sea floor, could pummel the pipes. A pipeline leak that goes undetected for months would cause extensive pollution. Oil spills that occur in winter could not be cleaned up until the summer open water season. It is not known what the oil would do under the ice.
The birds, seals and beluga that rely on estuaries, bays, and inlets – such as Ledyard and Petard Bays – could be impaired by even small oil spills that make it to the coast. Similarly, animals far offshore are at risk if an oil spill moves out to sea rather than along the coast.
Environmental groups say that these risks have been poorly studied by the government, and reveal a major weakness of the Five-Year Plan. Research from the Exxon Valdez disaster reveal that contamination of the seafloor and subsequent accumulation of toxins has the potential to impair the health of all wildlife, from the plankton and algae at the food base to top predators such as whales, seals, walrus, and polar bears – and eventually the Inupiat people who call the Arctic Sea home.
The people most affected by offshore oil development will be the Inupiat communities whose villages line the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea coasts.
The Inupiat’s lives are interwoven into the Arctic biosphere, a relationship that stretches more than 2,500 years. Their subsistence culture relies almost entirely on the hunting of sea mammals, and so any damage done to the fish, whales, seals, and walrus also threatens to destroy their way of life. The MMSs. own environmental impact study predicts devastating sociocultural impacts should the Inupiat’s hunting be impaired. The Inupiat villages immediately affected would be Wainright, Pt. Lay, and Pt. Hope on the western coast, and Barrow (at Pt. Barrow), Nuiqsit, and Kaktovik on the northern coast.
Other than Barrow, these are small villages with few economic options and little money for fighting this battle. Like many rural Alaska communities, they would enjoy having more jobs and opportunities. But they dont want the benefits to come at the expense of their food supply and culture. “Development in the Arctic Ocean is our greatest concern because it threatens the bowhead migration and the other marine mammals that thrive in these waters,” Itta says.
The hardest thing for many people who do not rely on the lands and waters immediately around them to understand is that subsistence is not simply about food. Like many Indigenous people whose lives center on subsistence practices, the Inupiat have a deep relationship with the wildlife and environment on which they depend.
The emotional depth of that relationship can be witnessed in a resolution opposing oil and gas development that the village of Pt. Hope passed in February 2005 . “The residents of our village &depend on the wildlife resources of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and the Arctic Ocean, and these waters are critical to the sustenance of the Inupiat people,” the resolution reads. The Pt. Hope resolution declares that that Arctic species “are essential to the sustenance and culture of all Native Arctic inhabitants, who have depended on these resources since time immemorial.”
Whaling captain Earnest Frankson explains that the bowhead whale, walrus, and other marine mammals are critical to Inupiat health, as well as their spiritual and cultural activities. “Our community ceremonies and rituals are centered around the bowhead whale,” Frankson says.
Offshore oil and gas development threatens this relationship because it threatens the health and well-being of the wildlife, and thus the physical and sociocultural well-being of the Inupiat.
As the oil companies prepare for oil exploration in the formerly off-limits areas of the Arctic seas, Native villages, the North Slope Borough, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, Alaska Walrus Commission, and Alaska Beluga Whale Commission are stepping up efforts to protect Inupiat subsistence rights. Environmental groups are also taking on the issue. Last-minute congressional lobbying is underway, and in May, Native groups and conservation organizations sued to halt the proposed development.
The future of America’s Arctic seas is a pivotal decision for the country. These phenomenal seas, their wildlife, and the Inupiat, could be spared if the US so chooses. Wise national energy policies and changes in individual practices could eliminate the need to destroy one of the last great seascapes of the world.
“Our Arctic seas are one of the most pristine, productive, and precious biomes on Earth, and they should stay that way,” Steiner says. “[Drilling the Arctic seas] would be saying we do not care about this unique place, and I dont believe that is what most Americans and other peoples of the world really think.”
Local residents feel that the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, their people and animals, are being treated as sacrifice zones. Robert Thompson, subsistence hunter and whaler from the community of Kaktovik, says, “Indigenous peoples of the Arctic should not be given less consideration than other coastal peoples in the lower 48 where offshore development is prohibited.”
Elise Wolf is a freelance writer in Homer, Alaska.
Take Action: Please contact your legislators and demand that these seas are protected. Go to www.alaskaoceans.org for group links and information.
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