Clean the Arctic to save the world

Clean the Arctic to save the world

The World Clean-up Day that went by on September 15 is a necessary reminder every year to save the Arctic ecosystem from rapid decline. Till a few decades ago, the Arctic ecosystem was pristine but has lately started to deteriorate at an alarming scale due to commercialisation of the Arctic Ocean predominantly through mercantile shipping and oil refinery activity.

Global warming has already triggered habitat loss of animals like polar bears, walrus etc. Glaciers, many of which have endured since the last Ice Age or longer, have gradually become smaller in size. Moreover, oil drilling is another critical commercial activity since decades in the Arctic.

Earlier, access to this climatically hostile region was restricted and hence the number of companies engaged in such activities was also fewer. As the climate became warmer and the sea ice diminished, large areas of open ocean started becoming newly accessible to shipping, enabling homing of more oil companies. In turn, this increased the pollution levels in the Arctic and contributed to more glacier melt which again gave greater access to these companies.

Global climate change has impacted many countries across the world. But while some geographic regions/sub-regions are affected severely, some have just started to bear the brunt. One of the main culprits of global warming is the high carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere. This gas gets dissolved in the sea-water and makes it more acidic. The decreased pH affects all kinds of marine life — coral reefs are bleached and shells of shellfishes get dissolved in the acidic waters. These changes then cause a ripple effect on the marine ecosystem.

Commercial activities like seismic testing, commercial shipping and fishing, deep-sea mining etc have also ruined the Arctic environment. The ship exhaust blackens ice which destroys wildlife and increases melting.

Seismic testing is done to ascertain where crude oil reserves are present in the seabed. The sound of air guns shot from the surface into the ocean floor disturbs whales. In fact, the sound generated is louder than that of a jet aircraft. This can induce changes in the feeding, communication and mating patterns of marine animals.

Permafrost is the permanently frozen part of the ground surface of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Thawing permafrost has the potential to release huge quantities of carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide (from dry environments) and methane (from wet environments). It can also have a significant impact on an area’s landscape, ecosystem, hydrology and infrastructure. This can lead to the collapse of roads, bridges, runways and buildings.

When a permafrost thaws, it also releases a Pandora’s box of potential viral and bacterial pathogens which were lying dormant in the frozen layers of polar ice. It can also cause recurrence of serious epidemics of earlier times and trigger huge mortalities as the present generation will not have much immunity against these pathogens.

As the ice melts, global weather patterns will get destabilised across countries. Over the past decade, the increased incidence of extreme climatic events like floods, droughts, hurricanes, tsunamis is attributed to these changes. The worst hit are people in low-income areas that are already vulnerable. By 2050, over 50% of the global population may be living under water stress.

Climate instability can lead to crop failure. And food crop yields are expected to fall as the planet heats up. There will be fewer ecological zones to grow food crops. This can translate into a hunger crisis.

For millions of years, even before humans came into existence, the Arctic ice had kept the planet cool, like an air conditioner system. But sadly, it’s melting at an alarming rate. There is now 75% less ice in the Arctic Ocean in the summer than there was 50 years ago. Many scientists warn that if people do not make changes now, Arctic ice will vanish by 2030.   

Environmentalists from across the world have also given many warnings for the past few decades on the ramifications of the Arctic climate change on other parts of the world too. There have been some initiatives
to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well. But the worrying figures of global warming are a message that it is necessary to quicken the pace in these efforts.

A Canadian NGO had launched a programme called MAPS (Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary) aimed at reducing commercial activities in the Arctic and sustaining its ecosystem. But global support is imperative to accomplish this goal. Citizens need to act locally and think globally and accord as much importance to the Arctic ecosystem as to their neighbourhood. Otherwise, we will soon have to bear the brunt of our environmental negligence.

(The writer is an Associate Professor with the Department of Life Sciences at Christ University, Bengaluru)

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