Expert Voices

As Arctic Melts, Shipping Traffic Blasts Wildlife (Op-Ed)

The sun setting over a field of broken sea ice, or frozen seawater that floats on the ocean, in Antarctica.
The sun setting over a field of broken sea ice, or frozen seawater that floats on the ocean, in Antarctica. (Image credit: Rob Johnson)

Gary Strieker was a CNN correspondent for 20 years, covering Africa as Nairobi bureau chief and then traveling the globe to report on the planet's threatened species and habitats. He founded Environment News Trust as a nonprofit production unit to cover stories ignored by corporate media. This American Land is a weekly series that airs on public television stations nationwide. Strieker contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights

Year by year, summer sea ice in the Arctic is disappearing. Suddenly an area that has always been largely inaccessible is now opening up to new commercial opportunities: ship traffic, oil exploration and who knows what's coming next. 

The Arctic Ocean is a harsh, unforgiving place, and any industrialization there will be hazardous, raising extreme risks to life and the fragile environment. But the rush is on.

"Everybody's coming up to stake their claim in the Arctic," says oceanographer Kate Stafford of the University of Washington. "And without good international regulation and cooperation, it's going to be like the Wild West." 

With three-fourths of the volume of Arctic sea ice reportedly lost since the 1980s, vast stretches of habitat for animals like the polar bear and walrus have been destroyed. But new economic activity in the region will ensure the consequences for wildlife are even more far-reaching: The Arctic Ocean is becoming noisier, and scientists believe this will have a profound impact on marine mammals that rely on sound to survive. [How Landmark Noise Settlement Protects Oceans and Industry (Op-Ed )]

Official records show that the number of tankers, cargo ships and tugs transiting through the Arctic has more than doubled since 2008. Offshore oil exploration by Royal Dutch Shell and others has added to the increased industrialization. Mostly low-frequency sounds from ship engines, seismic surveys and drilling machinery overlap with and may interfere with sounds produced and received by marine mammals.

"Studies show that whales, for example, respond to anthropogenic [human-caused] noise by leaving the area, reducing respiration or surface time, and decreasing calls to other whales," Stafford says. "A study of northern right whales suggests they may be chronically stressed from high levels of sounds from ships."

Also, there is increased risk of collisions between ships and animals that are unable to locate and avoid the vessels because of interference created by the ship sounds.

Stafford has been studying sounds in the Arctic Ocean, using hydrophones that record whales, seals, walruses, ship passages and seismic air guns used for seafloor mapping. She says that much more research is needed to assess the sensitivity of marine mammals to industrial noise and to figure out what can be done to minimize its potential impact.

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More industrialization in the Arctic is inevitable, but there are ways to reduce the risks. Stafford suggests the oil and gas industry should shut down seismic and development activities during periods when high concentrations of marine mammals are present, or impose a sound "budget" to limit the level of sound that can be produced at one time. Shipping traffic should be confined to specific lanes with strict speed limits, and some areas like the Bering Strait should be closed to all traffic during peak whale-migration periods.

Others point out that the native peoples in the region need to be part of the solution. Their way of life depends on ocean resources, hunting and fishing in small boats offshore where they also risk collision with large vessels. 

"What we would like to see is a much more sustainable approach that will not impact this ecosystem," said Marilyn Heiman, the U.S. Arctic program director for the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has taken a leading advocacy role on the Arctic traffic issue. But this is not a challenge that can be addressed solely by the U.S. The Arctic Ocean is shared with Canada, several European nations and Russia, and much of it is considered international waters. 

Any solutions will need to be achieved through international agreement. That's a long and tedious process that needs to start now.

The author's most recent Op-Ed was "To Eliminate River Sludge, Modern Tech Is Key." Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

Environment News Trust