The Race to Safeguard the Arctic's Natural Heritage

Scientists are trying to protect seven marine areas before climate change worsens.

Scoresbysund Fjord in eastern Greenland (wildestanimal / Getty)

The Arctic Ocean may look inhospitable, but it teems with life along its coasts and within the unexpected, ice-free oases brimming with seabirds gorging on plankton and krill. Despite the anchor these places provide for many of the planet’s birds, whales and marine mammals, almost none have a spot on the World Heritage list, a jaw-dropping catalogue of wonders maintained by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Now a group of global scientists want to fix that oversight. On Tuesday, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, made up of more than 170 countries, government agencies, and more than 1,000 conservation groups, singled out seven Arctic marine sites that could potentially qualify for UNESCO World Heritage status.

More than 1,000 sites around the world have earned the UNESCO designation, based on their “outstanding universal value,” including the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and China’s Great Wall. Yet only five sites are found within the limits of the Arctic Circle, and only one of them, Russia’s Wrangel Island Reserve, is a marine site, frequented by hundreds of thousands of Pacific walrus and serving as the summer feeding grounds for some visiting humpback whales from Baja California, Mexico.

Many of the proposed sites are threatened by climate change, or its consequences: As the rapidly melting sea ice brings new human activities to Arctic waters, previously inaccessible areas are now opening up to cruise ships, cargo vessels, oil and gas development and commercial fishing.

“Science tells us that the best way of giving these marine ecosystems the best chance of making it through the changes underway is by creating large protected areas,” says Lisa Speer, a marine scientist and director of the International Oceans Program at the Natural Resources Defense Fund, an environmental NGO that co-produced the report.

So far, only two of the sites are already being considered for the list. In the far reaches of Norway’s Arctic waters, the Svalbard Archipelago is home to large breeding bird colonies and open-water areas used by endangered stocks of bowhead whale, Atlantic walrus, narwhal, and the Greenland shark. In the ocean adjacent to Canada’s Quttinirpaaq national park on Ellesmere Island, a narrow band of sea ice more than nine years old—the oldest and thickest in the Arctic—bumps up against the coastline, steadily shrinking.

Before a site can be nominated for inclusion on the World Heritage List, it must have held a spot on a country’s list of tentative sites for at least a year. If UNESCO approves the site, the more than 190 countries that take part in the World Heritage program vow to protect it. This new report lays the groundwork for governments and local communities to evaluate these areas and consider adding them to that list.

One of these areas, located in Canada’s Northern Baffin Bay, contains a large open water polynya that stays ice-free year round, a cafeteria of sorts for polar bears, narwhal, bowhead whales and other marine mammals. Tallurutiup Tariunga, also known as Lancaster Sound, is part of the bay and lies at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage. As Tallurutiup Tariunga becomes increasingly busy with ships, pleasure crafts and yachts, the location of narwhal, beluga, and walrus become less predictable, making it difficult for locals to plan their hunts and harvest food. Inuit living there have been trying to secure protection for the area for decades.

“People depend on the wildlife that surrounds their communities,” says Steven Lonsdale, the environmental and regulatory affairs advisor for the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, the group that represents the 14,000 Inuit living in the Baffin region. “It’s an abundant food source and major part of the diet. In terms of food security, they depend on it.”

The full list of the proposed sites is below:

The Bering Strait

(Anne Morkill)

Straddling the border of the United States and Russia, the Bering Strait is the Pacific gateway to the Arctic—and once formed a bridge for humans and other species traveling between North American and Eurasia during the last ice age. Millions of seabirds nest, forage and breed in the region and hundreds of thousands of whales, seals, walrus and other marine mammals migrate through the Strait each spring and fall, including humpback whales in transit from Mexico. But as the sea ice retreats and Arctic development grows, more and more ships are transiting the narrow 50-mile-wide passageway, raising the risk of collisions with wildlife, noise disturbance and the potential for oil spills.

Northern Baffin Bay

An iceberg at the edge of the Baffin Bay's sea ice (Wikimedia Commons)

Tucked between Greenland and Canada and spilling into the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage, this area holds the Arctic’s largest polynya. In early spring, a bloom of phytoplankton feeds seabirds and marine mammals, including an enormous colony of little auks, narwhal, beluga and bowhead whales. The area is vulnerable to shipping and shipping infrastructure, oil exploration and tourism interest in the Northwest Passage.

Disko Bay and Store Hellefiskebanke

Disko Bay (Wikimedia Commons)

Jakobshavn Glacier calves more icebergs than any other in the northern hemisphere. As they melt, they form a pool of freshwater at the ocean surface where phytoplankton, microscopic marine plants, thrive and feed ocean animals. Nearly 500,000 king eider from across Arctic Canada gather at Store Hellefiskebanke to overwinter and breed and 1,500 bowhead whales gather in Disko Bay each spring. Climate change is already altering the temperature, salinity and nutrients available in Disko Bay, and the risk of trawl fishing continues to grow as the sea ice shrinks.

The Great Siberian Polynya

(Wikimedia Commons)

This polynya regularly appears in the same spot, winter after winter, making it an important resource for marine mammals, fish and seabirds, including the long-tailed duck and the spectacled eider. Unlike other Pacific walrus, those living in the Laptev Sea do not migrate due to the polynya’s winter persistence. Oil licenses cover almost the entire area of the polynya, raising the threat of oil spills and wildlife disturbance from seismic surveys.

The High Arctic Archipelagos

Monaco glacier in Liefdefjord, Svalbard (Wikimedia Commons)

These three groups of islands stretch from northern Norway to Russia, along the migratory routes of walrus, polar bears and seals. The islands are also rich with seabirds, including most of the global ivory gull population, Atlantic puffins and little auks, which feed off the species carried northward by the North Atlantic Current. Arctic warming will likely bring more southern species into these waters and push Arctic communities out of the area. Tourism, oil development and commercial fishing also threaten the region.

Scoresby Sound Polynya

(Wikimedia Commons)

Several large outlet glaciers drain the east side of the Greenland Ice Sheet into Scoresby Sound, the world’s largest system of fjords. The nearby polynya provides seabirds with food earlier in the spring that the ice-blocked coasts to the north and south, supporting an estimated 3.5 million breeding pairs of little auks. The main threat to the area is due to climate change and its effects on the ecosystem as it changes seawater temperature and chemistry.

Northeast Water Polynya (and the remnants of the multiyear sea ice)

(skeeze / Pixbay)

Pushed by ocean currents, Arctic sea ice piles up along the northernmost coasts of Canada and Greenland, where it compresses into thickest and oldest sea ice in the Arctic. As the sea ice melts, the ice here may well become one of the last areas able to support ice-dependent species, including polar bears and ringed seals. Adjacent to this unique habitat is a large polynya, an open-water feeding ground for bowhead whales and calving area for the northeast Greenland stock of walrus, as well as home to the largest known breeding colony of ivory gulls in Greenland.