Sylvia Earle: An open ocean in Arctic summer

Sylvia Earle has been at the frontier of deep ocean exploration for four decades and is perhaps the world’s most recognized and respected oceanographer. As one of 11 members of the Commission on Arctic Climate Change, Sylvia Earle helped finalize a report on the Arctic – called The Shared Future – released in early 2011. The report underscores the global opportunities and challenges that exist in the 21st century Arctic. Dr. Earle spoke to EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar. LISTEN or READ: audio podcasts above, text below.

You were part of the Aspen Institute Commission on Arctic Climate Change, which released a report on the Arctic in early 2011. What did the report say?

The report underscores the opportunity that now exists, as never before.

Image Credit: artic pj

Because never before have we known the risks, never before have we understood the impacts that the Arctic has on the world as a whole, as a driver of climate, related to such broad issues as sea level rise.

The Arctic has a disproportionate impact on the world given its relatively small size. This is a moment in history when we will take actions one way or the other – or inactions – but we humans will influence much that determines the fate and future of the Arctic, the people and the creatures who live there. And in so doing, we have a global impact on all people everywhere.

In a nutshell, what is the future that we all share in the Arctic?

The Arctic is a place that historically, during all preceding human history, has largely been an icy realm with an impact on ocean currents. That, in turn, influences the temperature of the planet. The Arctic is now vulnerable because of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, with a rate of melting that is stunning.

The year 2007 just rocked the community of scientists who were observing this, when the amount of summer ice had disappeared, plummeted, at a rate that was unpredicted and unanticipated. During the years since, it has continued to decline, not quite such a startling drop as between 2006 and 2007. But the trend itself is accelerating.

And that dramatic melting in 2007 is an indication of how the planet as a whole is changing. The temperature rise in the Arctic is noticed faster than it is elsewhere. The feedback mechanisms – the decline of the ice – means more dark water, which means in turn that the melting will go even faster.

A new transportation route across the top of the world is anticipated – not 1,000 years from now, not 100 years from now – but before this century is over.

All of this represents unprecedented change in a short period of time. Now, change is inevitable through all times every day. Every day is different. The processes heretofore have been moving at a more stately pace, sort of a geologic pace.

People and wildlife generally are now experiencing an accelerated change that we have to adjust to. It impacts not just the people and wildlife of the Arctic – like the bears, the seals, the fish, and the under-ocean communities of life, not just the people of the Northern Hemisphere. But the globe as a whole is changing and we see it with clarity in the Arctic. What happens in the Arctic affects the whole world.

The Shared Future report highlights the importance of something called ocean spatial planning. What is that? And why is it important in the Arctic?

The Arctic is an ocean. The southern pole is a continent surrounded by ocean. The North Pole is an ocean, or northern waters. It’s an ocean surrounded by land, basically.

So it’s entirely fitting that it should come under the current theme of ocean spatial planning. In other words, how do we use this space? How do we protect it? How do we ensure that the value that we derive – a so-called free service from the Arctic Ocean to all people everywhere – is maintained and protected? There are new demands on it, new pressures to extract from it, to use it in other ways – for shipping, and for the extraction of ocean wildlife. Fish and other creatures are marketable and therefore being viewed eagerly by countries who want to go fishing there.

There is also the potential for extraction of fossil fuels from beneath what is now an ice-covered ocean, but soon will not be. Even the ice-covered areas might be the source of sites for extraction of fossil fuels. Of great concern is, where are the fossil fuels? How to recover them? Is that recovery in fact going to be something that will be in the best interests of humankind everywhere?

You’ve spoken to EarthSky and many others about what you call hope spots. What are hope spots? Are there hope spots in the Arctic marine environment?

Hope spot for me is any place in the ocean that is still in pretty good shape, that if we act now and protect, it’s a cause for hope. It also refers to places that aren’t in such good shape, like Chesapeake Bay, like the Gulf of Mexico, like many coastal areas of the world.

Image Credit: christine zenino

Because if we take action while we still have some oysters and clams and the other creatures that make up the living systems, there’s cause for hope that we can recover them. We can’t go back to what they were 100 or 1,000 years ago. But they can be better than they are by taking proactive measures to restore their health.

All the Arctic is a hope spot. I hope we’ll get it right. We have one chance to take actions as never before in history, because never before have we had access to this immense body of water.

We can blunder our way into it and do as we have in much of the rest of the planet, without thoughtfully considering the consequences 10, 100, or 1,000 years from now. Or we can learn from the past and be proactive about care.

We can identify the most critical areas, the most vital parts of the system. That’s certainly an obvious first step. There’s a heart of the Arctic area – basically the high seas – that are not the jurisdiction of any one nation. There is an opportunity for nations to agree that we’re just going to leave that at least alone as a legacy, a protected area, like protecting the heart of the Arctic: the vital center of that area. We can just agree to keep it in the bank as we deliberate and decide how individual nations will act on behalf of their interests within the parts of the Arctic that are under their jurisdiction.

When we have so many questions, it would seem logical that we would move with great caution, especially knowing that it doesn’t take much to really disturb and distress and destroy the fragile Arctic system.

What is one thing you really want to get across to people about governing and managing the Arctic marine environment?

The most important thing for people to know about the governance of the Arctic is that we have a chance now to act to maintain the integrity of the system or to lose it. To lose it means that we will dismember the vital systems that make the Arctic work. It’s not just a cost to the people who live there. It’s a cost to all people everywhere.

Those of us who are on the planet right now have a voice, an opportunity. It’s on our watch. We need to weigh in with our voices, make our concerns known, provoke our governments to act in a responsible fashion, to exercise care proactively in terms of policies, governing how we move forward. And we need to do everything we can to maintain the integrity of that system, given its immense value to humankind now and forevermore.

Everyone, wherever on the planet you live, you have a vested interest in what happens there.

EarthSky interviews on the report from the Aspen Institute Commission on Arctic Climate Change – titled The Shared Future – are part of a special series made possible in part by Shell – encouraging dialogue on the energy challenge.

Robert Blaauw on oil exploration and development in the Arctic

Sven Lindblad: Global community needs Arctic environment to thrive

David Monsma on new report on Arctic: The Shared Future

September 1, 2011

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