Environmental Protection

Is the Arctic in danger?
Answered by Sylvia Earle
  • Sylvia Earle

    Sylvia Earle

  1. Sylvia Earle Founder and President, The Sylvia Earle Alliance


    As a child, I thought the world that I knew would basically be the same, no matter what. Rachel Carson, when she wrote The Sea Around Us in 1951, basically implied that things were going to be onward much like the past -- except on the land. She recognized that the fabric of life was really at risk. But the ocean seemed more steady, more stable. Now we know that our power extends beyond the land and into the sea -- that the polar ice is really changing and changing very fast, nowhere faster than in the Arctic. So that this -- what this seemingly rock solid, steady polar system is really vulnerable to our actions. The ice is shrinking.

    Bad news for polar bears, bad news for the whole arctic living system, bad news for the people who live there. Good news for shipping, good news for those who want to have access that has been denied human beings -- easy access to the high Arctic. The concern should be, for all of us, that changes in the Arctic have a magnified impact on all of the world. It's a big part of the thermal regulation of the system, the way that the currents flow around the planet. There are questions that are not being asked at the highest levels about how do we address the changing Arctic.

    The focus seems to be on: How can we dive in there and get more fish that haven't been tapped before? How can we ebb up our travel around the trade routes across the top of the world? How can we get to the oil and gas, now that the ice is receding? The question should be how can we stabilize the system and understand how it's working and respond to it most effectively. We have one chance to get it right. Never before have we had access to places that are now suddenly there, open. In Antarctica, half a century ago, cool heads, wise minds decided to basically bank Antarctica for whatever reason. Security was high on the list. But whatever, decided among nations to leave the Antarctic system alone. Don't tear into that amazing part of the planet.

    Explore first; maybe there's a way to exploit. Unfortunately, it didn't quite extend to the oceans surrounding the Arctic, with the same solid ethic. And certainly, it hasn't extended to the Arctic. And while it's easier with the Antarctic -- I suppose -- because there are not a lot of people who live there. There weren't any living there in the 1950s. In the Arctic, there's a long history of people living around the Arctic Ocean. And there are vested interests. Eight countries, in particular, have claims to the Arctic, direct claims, based on the law of the sea and other laws that we bring into play. There should be some common purpose here, not just for those eight nations but for the whole world, because that's what is on the line.

    What we do to the Arctic has a magnified impact on everything else. So everyone should have a voice in determining how we proceed. That's not the way it is right now. There are a handful of countries that are calling the shots. We need, somehow, to speak with a voice of humanity and at the same time, speak for nature, because there, perhaps more than any other place on the planet, what happens there will determine the nature of the future.

    More answers from Sylvia Earle »

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