For almost 30 years, World Wildlife Fund has been “on the ground” across the circumpolar region, helping to conserve Arctic ecosystems and collaborating with local people to develop long-term conservation solutions. Now more than ever action is needed in the Arctic to safeguard vast areas of intact habitat, ensure sustainable and healthy ecosystems for people and wildlife, and put in place the right policies and practices for an Arctic that is changing before our eyes.
While seemingly remote and separate from life in the Lower 48, the Arctic in fact touches most Americans every day, in unseen but important ways. As climate change impacts are increasingly felt in the Arctic, these changes will affect life beyond the Arctic, too.
Although World Wildlife Fund plays an active role in polar bear conservation (funding research, contributing expertise to the U.S. federal polar bear recovery plan and supporting community-based polar bear “patrols”) the Arctic program has a broader focus. Our aim is to shield Arctic ecosystems and communities from the worst impacts of climate change by promoting the protection of key habitats that support vibrant, productive natural communities, such as Bristol Bay, America’s “Fish Basket,” and the Bering Strait, a “marine mammal superhighway” between the United States and Russia. World Wildlife Fund staff can be found in small coastal villages collaborating with fishermen or Alaska Native leaders, in a Bering Sea harbor absorbing local knowledge from a fisherman, or in a U.S. Senate chamber, testifying on oil spills or climate change impacts.
Why care about the Arctic?
The Arctic is a region consisting of deep ocean waters covered by drifting pack ice and surrounded by continents and archipelagos around the North Pole. It is home to 4 million people and over 11 million square miles of marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Today, as the Earth’s temperatures increase, the Arctic is feeling the impacts most dramatically, warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet.
One of the most important systems in the Arctic Ocean is the vast and vital sea ice. At its peak each year the ice covers an average of 9 million square miles and serves as the base of the Arctic marine life ecosystem. Light filtering through the ice helps create a nutrient rich environment of microscopic algae and zooplankton, which becomes food for fish like Arctic char and cod. The fish, in turn, sustain seals – the primary prey of polar bears – and Arctic whales. Another important job of sea ice that is often overlooked is its job as the planet’s air conditioner. The earth relies on the Arctic’s white ice and snow to reflect the sun’s warmth back into the atmosphere, creating a cooling effect. As the ice and snow melts, the darker earth, rock and ocean waters actually start absorbing the sun’s heat – which in turn contributes to warming around the globe.
In the summer, millions of migratory birds come to the Arctic to feed and raise their young on the Arctic Ocean’s expansive coastal wetlands. The birds have come great distances from every continent to reach the food-rich Arctic, where they find expansive habitat to nest and raise their young before heading south again. Dunlins have wintered along the coast of China, some having traveled from Africa and South America, and the Arctic tern has traveled all the way from Antarctica to spend the summer in the high Arctic. These birds are truly citizens of the world and ambassadors for the remarkable abundance of the Arctic. This mass migration contributes to the economic diversification in Arctic communities through small-scale ecotourism activities, which are low impact and independent of development cycles.
Many people are familiar with the wild Bering Sea region because of popular reality shows. But they may not be aware that the 770,000 square miles between western Alaska and Russia’s eastern coast is the source of over half the seafood caught in the Unites States and one of the largest salmon runs in the world. Sockeye salmon, king salmon, steelhead and red king crab are just a few of the species located in the Bering Sea. This abundance feeds millions of people and supports a $2 billion dollar fishing industry.
Arctic areas are vitally important to wildlife, but they are equally important for people. Indigenous people rely heavily on the natural abundance provided by the region to maintain their cultures and lifestyles. These remaining wild places also give people a touchstone to connect with nature and to build a wider appreciation of our world.
Margaret Williams is managing director of the World Wildlife Fund’s U.S. Arctic Field Program in Anchorage. She can be reached at 279-5504.
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