Helicopter approaches Camp Barneo near the North Pole. National Geographic stock photo.

Helicopter approaches Camp Barneo near the North Pole. National Geographic stock photo.

The loss of Arctic sea ice has done more than herald the extent of global warming. It has opened up the prospect of new shipping routes and new access to natural resources. As the ice has retreated, nations and private interests have advanced on the wild, remote region that affects the world–both as home to unique species, and ecosystems that provide cooling for the planet.

But how to manage the competing claims on the Arctic’s 11.6 million square miles (30 million square kilometers), given the potential for the interests of eight separate nations to collide at the top of the Earth?

That question has been examined in depth over the past two years by Aspen Institute Commission on Arctic Climate Change, an 11-member panel of experts representing the diversity of stakeholders in the Arctic question — environmentalists, scientists, human rights advocates, tourism, those in the business of energy extraction. The effort was organized by the Aspen Institute’s energy and environment program, which aims to provide nonpartisan leadership and a neutral forum for constructive dialogue on complex policy issues, and was funded by the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, which works to act as an accelerator of projects and solutions to the environment, and by the global oil company, Shell.

The Commission’s report, The Shared Future, which was formally released Wednesday at a forum in Washington, D.C., stresses that nations should move immediately to address the impact of climate change on the Arctic. It says, in fact, that governments should be working with non-governmental organizations and other interested parties to have in place both an Arctic marine conservation and sustainable development plan in place by next year. And the Commission calls for a special diplomatic conference on the Arctic in 2012.

“The need to identify and protect critical Arctic marine habitats is urgent,” the report says. “Once economic interests become entrenched, it will be very difficult to protect areas that are subsequently identified as biologically significant.”

Of course, how to get the eight Arctic nations — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States — to work together is a crucial challenge. As the report notes, “The Arctic nations now appear to be growingly concerned with mapping out their undersea shelves, planting flags at the bottom of the ocean, and arguing over the possession of tiny islands.”

The Commission says there is an opportunity to build on an existing effort at cooperation, the Arctic Council, which was founded in 1996 as an intergovernmental forum to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States. The Council has been innovative, including representatives of Indigenous Peoples as participants, and focusing on critical issues such as widespread contamination caused by persistent organic pollutants in Arctic wildlife and human communities.

The Arctic Council “should be reset as an effective, multilateral organization for the region and given the resources and a revised architecture to ensure that the planning, management and accountability expressed in this report’s recommendations are realized,” the Commission says.
At the heart of the Commission’s recommendations is that the nations should begin the process of “marine spatial planning,” to address the challenges of the Arctic region and to form the basis of ecosystem management. Such planning would seek to answer three questions: “Where are we today? Where do we want to be? How do we get there?” The Commission also calls for the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean to be protected as a “zone of international scientific cooperation,” and has urged that countries refrain from authorizing vessels to take fish in the high seas until science better understands the region, its species, and significance.

The Commission catalogues some of the challenges that planning needs to address:

Marine-based tourism is expanding especially rapidly in the Arctic, from 1.2 million cruise ship passengers traveling to Arctic destinations in 2004 to more than double that number in 2007.

Some of the world’s largest and most valuable fisheries such as cod, herring and pollock occur in the sub-Arctic and many experts predict these fisheries are likely to move north as the ocean warms and sea ice melts.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic contains as much as 13 percent of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered gas. Of these resources, most of the oil is expected to occur offshore.

In all, the Commission catalogues 28 different competing uses of the Arctic that may be battling for access and a claim to the region in the coming years, from energy to dredging and ports to military operations to religious ceremonial areas to fishing.

And yet, the Arctic also calls out for protection, as former President Jimmy Carter put it in a forward to the Commission’s report: “The Arctic is a world of inherent silence and stark beauty, populated by majestic animals above and below the sea, and in the air. It is a place of great natural mystery, where so much about its ecology remains unknown.” The Commission’s work, Carter wrote, is an effort to understand “how we can best respond as an international community” to what is happening in the Arctic.

Map of shrinking sea ice in the Arctic. National Geographic stock image.

Map of shrinking sea ice in the Arctic. National Geographic stock image.

Here is what the commission members and members of their working group say about their work on the Arctic:

Jane Lubchenco, U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator, gave the keynote address at today’s Aspen Institute forum.

NOAA was releasing its first ever Arctic Vision and Strategy, Lubchenco said. NOAA’s report, which will concentrate scientific, service, and stewardship efforts in the Arctic, complements the report by the Aspen Institute Commission on Arctic Climate Change, she added.

“The Arctic is at once a majestic, harsh, and fragile environment. It’s the region where we are seeing the most rapid and dramatic changes in the climate. And these regional changes have global implications,” Lubchenco said.

“NOAA’s Arctic plan builds on our research history in that region to prepare us for a changing Arctic that will affect our economic, environmental, and strategic interests. The time to refocus our efforts is now and strong local, regional and international partnerships are required if we are to succeed.”

The NOAA Arctic Vision and Strategy lists six goals:

* Forecast sea ice
* Strengthen foundational science to understand and detect Arctic climate and ecosystem changes
* Improve weather and water forecasts and warnings
* Enhance international and national partnerships
* Improve stewardship and management of ocean and coastal resources in the Arctic
* Advance resilient and healthy Arctic communities and economies

“The Arctic is the last oceanic frontier,” Lubchenco said. Where all the other oceans of the world had been overfished, polluted, and degraded, she said, “the Arctic Ocean provides us with one last chance, one final opportunity, to get it right the first time around.”

Brooks Yeager is executive vice president of the Climate Policy Center of Clean Air-Cool Planet (CA-CP), an organization dedicated to finding and promoting solutions to global warming. “As we talk today, senior officials of the eight Arctic nations are meeting to prepare for the gathering of their foreign ministers in two months’ time,” he said at the Aspen forum.

The ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, as the eight-nation group is known, will be meeting to face the challenges of the rapidly changing Arctic region, Yeager added. “The question is whether they will interpret the challenges broadly or narrowly. The scale of change in the Arctic is unprecedented and rapid … and the consequences will be profound. It calls for an equally profound response.”

At a time when a lot of attention was being focused on boundary disputes in the Arctic, Yeager said, the Aspen Commission report called for new levels of cooperation. While world demand for oil, fish, and efficient transportation was putting pressure on Arctic resources, there was a need for a sustainable development plan, action and ongoing effort by the Arctic nations.

“The Arctic is an opportunity to get it right,” Lisa Speer, director of the International Oceans Program, National Resources Defense Council, told the forum. Acting now meant it would be possible to get out ahead of oil and gas exploration and fishing to avoid the problems of overfishing, pollution, and other issues that had so compromised the other oceans, she said. “There is an opportunity for us to plan and act in a rational way for the development that is coming at us.”

An estimated fifth of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas could be in the Arctic, while some of the richest fisheries now in the sub-Arctic were heading for the Arctic, Speer said. Yet there was no international fishery management system in place and no international standards to govern oil and gas development. “On almost every front we are behind the curve, and we need to move quickly.”

The Aspen Commission looked at options of how to strengthen the governance of the Arctic, but it did not choose any options, Bill Eichbaum noted. The VP and managing director of WWF‘s Marine Portfolio added that the Aspen Commission had, however, identified a set of principles that could be achieved and implemented, and some actions that could be taken to implement those principles. “They are not a shopping list,” he said, “you can’t pick one and be part way there, or pick three and think that will be pretty good. These all really need to be done if governments and societies are going to have a sustainable future both for the livelihoods of the people who live in the Arctic and for the environmental values in the Arctic.”

Robert Blaauw, senior advisor of Shell’s Global Arctic Theme, represented the only oil and gas company participating in the Aspen forum. Shell and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are launching a project which proposes to facilitate the development of “best practices” within and across the key industry sectors (oil and gas, mining, shipping, fishing and tourism) which have operations or activities in the Arctic marine environment, he said.

“The goal is to minimize industries’ collective footprint and contribute to safe and sustainable future industry development in the Arctic and present solutions to an increasing number of new challenges within this region,” Blaauw said.

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle was a member of the Aspen Commission on Arctic Climate Change. She told the forum today the decisions made about the Arctic would affect all of the future for all people everywhere on Earth. “The indigenous people [of the Arctic] should have a magnified voice and interest, but it does affect everyone, everywhere, for all time.”

Earle added that she viewed the The Commission’s report, The Shared Future, as a document of hope. “Here it is, now let’s go forth and use it and act upon it,” she said.

Terry Garcia, National Geographic Executive Vice President, Mission Programs, is a member of the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. He told the Aspen forum that the Deepwater Horizon explosion “was completely foreseeable and avoidable … the result of multiple failures on multiple levels.” Many of the deficiencies identified in the sequence of events that led to the Deepwater Horizon explosion applied equally to the Arctic region, he said.

Little was known about how oil would disperse in ice, Garcia noted. It was also not known whether or not the differences between oil exploration and production in the Arctic had been taken fully into account.

The nearest Coast Guard base to Arctic drilling operations was in Kodiak, Garcia added. The government and industry needed to address how they were going to manage events. There was also a need to address the lack of standards governing how the international community was going to proceed with drilling in the Arctic, Garcia said.

Here is the full list of the members of the Arctic Commission:

H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco, President , Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation
Lloyd Axworthy, President and Vice Chancellor, University of Winnipeg
Frances Beinecke, President , Natural Resources Defense Council
Patricia Cochran, Executive Director , Alaska Native Science Commission
Sylvia Earle, Explorer -in -Residence , National Geographic
David Lawrence, Executive Vice -President , Exploration and Commercial Upstream Americas, Shell
James Leape, Director General , WW F – International
Sven-Olof Lindblad, President and Founder , Lindblad Expeditions
Thomas E. Lovejoy, Biodiversit y Chair , The Heinz Center
Lee McIntire, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer , CH2M HILL
Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Human Rights and Environmental Advocate

Additional reporting for this blog post by David Braun.