Alaska’s Arctic is ground zero for the world’s climate crisis

Alaska’s Arctic is one of the most ecologically productive and significant places on Earth. A fine balance between what is frozen and what is thawed exists. A unique array of wildlife lives within a diverse landscape of treeless tundra dotted with rivers and lagoons, the boreal forest and the Brooks mountain range.

Polar bear and cub off Beaufort. Photo by Kelley Elliott, NOAA.

Beaufort Sea Polar Bear and Cub ©Kelley Elliott

450,000 caribou of the Western Arctic Herd walk the tundra, while coastal waters provide refuge to seals, walrus and polar bears. One of the world’s largest concentrations of raptors lives in the Western Arctic. The region’s fish and wildlife species have profound impacts on Alaska’s Arctic ecosystems, as well as the livelihoods and ways of life of the indigenous people.

This is a region that has produced astonishing discoveries, changing the world’s view of our ancient past. Scientists have unearthed the skeletons of dinosaurs that adapted to survive in cold climates.

Although remote and undisturbed, the Arctic is under constant threat from the massive reserves of oil, coal, gas and minerals housed underground. It is also the poster child for climate change.

The Threat: Climate Crisis and Resource Development

In the last half-century, average temperatures in the region have increased 4 degrees Fahrenheit—four times the global average. The polar ice cap has shrunk nearly 40% since 2005. Permafrost has receded by nearly 10%.

Shishmaref Home Lost to Erosion ©Alaska Village Electric Cooperative

Native coastal villages like Shishmaref are literally falling away as permafrost melts while stronger, more frequent storms ravage coastlines left bare of protective ice. As ice cover decreases, seals and walruses move further offshore, beyond reach of Native communities relying on them for food. Polar bears struggle to survive, hunting on land as their sea ice habitat disappears. The Arctic Ocean’s entire underwater ecosystem is being disrupted as warmer water moves steadily north.

Against the backdrop of climate change, is an ever increasing demand for oil. Alaska’s Arctic has the nation’s largest oil fields, which are steadily expanding their footprint across the tundra and offshore. The world’s unquenchable thirst for oil continues to create pressure to drill in critical wildlife areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain, Teshekpuk Lake, as well as offshore in the icy waters of the Chukchi Sea. Shrinking ice cover may bring new shipping traffic to a region that has no marine safety infrastructure and no margin for environmental error. A oil spill the size of the recent Gulf of Mexico spill would mean permanent disaster for the entire region.

A Critical Player in Arctic Issues for 35 Years

Since 1980, Alaska Conservation Foundation (ACF) has been a critical player on Arctic issues. ACF was the fiscal sponsor of the successful multi-million dollar Arctic Coalition national campaign to stop drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Today, the Foundation provides operational support to groups organizing in the region, including Gwich’in Steering Committee and Northern Alaska Environment Center, and provides project funding to keep the Arctic region in the national spotlight. ACF’s Alaska Native Fund also helps to empower Alaska Native groups to organize and find financial support.

You Can Help!

Climate change has thrown the world’s polar regions into a state of crisis and opens the way to further exploitation of its fragile resources. By donating to ACF, you help protect this vulnerable part of the world for future generations.


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