Polar Distress

Steven Kazlowski/Left Eye Pro
Steven Kazlowski/Left Eye Pro

Polar Distress

With the clock running out in January, the Bush administration, ignoring the concerns of its own scientists and possibly breaking federal law, looks to open a vital stretch of Arctic habitat to offshore oil and gas drilling. So much for saving endangered bears.

By Daniel Glick
Published: May-June 2008

Early each spring pregnant bowhead whales, insulated by up to a foot and a half of fat that helps them withstand frigid Arctic waters, pass north through the Bering Strait and pause in their annual, 3,500-mile migration to give birth to one-ton calves. Following cracks in the melting ice pack off the north coast of Alaska, these bowheads feed on the riot of tiny marine invertebrates that erupts as the returning sunlight sparks a reawakening of an elaborate food chain.

An evolutionary parade swirls alongside the ice leads, from the tiny zooplankton to the baleen whales that miraculously turn krill into life-sustaining blubber. Walrus herds, sometimes numbering in the thousands, use the same moving ice edge like smart shoppers at a sale. Diving from ice platforms, the walruses seek a trove of clams and mussels in the shallow waters below, hauling themselves back onto the ice to rest between feeding forays. Ice-dependent seals--ringed seals, bearded seals, spotted seals, ribbon seals--also trail this floating ice ark, devouring Arctic cod that feed on small shrimplike copepods that dine on phytoplankton.

Almost like a cartoon version of the food chain, with one small fish being eaten by a bigger fish, then that by an even bigger one, the seals in turn fall prey to the lurking top predator cruising this same floating Arctic carnival: the polar bear.


These species and many others, including red-throated and yellow-billed loons and waterfowl including king and spectacled eiders, migrate through or stop to feed or molt in and around a watery place on the globe that cartographers know as the Chukchi Sea. Situated north and west of Point Barrow, the northernmost tip of the United States, the Chukchi is also a focal point for yet another conservation battle along the Alaskan frontier. A recent Bush administration decision to open up offshore oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea repeats a now-familiar tilt toward accelerating domestic oil and gas production on public land, no matter what the ecological costs may be.

But this time, by opening up a marine area the size of Pennsylvania to energy development with a controversial lease sale this past February, the Bush administration likely broke federal law, ignored Native Alaskan concerns, censored and disregarded the government's own scientists, and mobilized a national coalition from the conservation community to mount a legal challenge that will be resolved in the courts or Congress--or possibly by the next President. Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, who unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation to delay the sale, called the Bush administration's approach "regulatory lunacy and a blatant disregard for moral responsibility."

The Chukchi leases appear to be part of a final, concerted push by the Bush administration to open up as much public land as possible to energy development before leaving office. The timing of the lease was especially suspect, since it occurred immediately after the administration postponed a decision about whether to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act--and before a thorough environmental review that would include the effects of development on an area that's home to half the U.S. polar bear population. "They've got the clock running and their eye on January," says Stan Senner, executive director of Alaska Audubon. "They're going to squeeze in everything they possibly can, and there's no pretense of balance."

To marine biologists, the Chukchi Sea supports a remarkably rich concentration of offshore Arctic biodiversity. This region is a relatively shallow stretch of water that lies between the Bering Strait to the south, the Beaufort Sea on the east, and the vast stretches of the Arctic Ocean to the north, where waters quickly become too deep and cold to support much life. The Chukchi is, in effect, a last-chance sanctuary, where many of the planet's most charismatic marine mammals, including polar bears and walruses, spend part of their annual cycle of foraging, giving birth, and storing up enough calories to survive and reproduce. In spring, common and thick-billed murres funnel north through the Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea to reach cliffside nests in such places as Cape Lisburne, from which they take advantage of the tremendous burst of Arctic marine productivity once the high seas are free of ice for the season. "This is the most biologically productive area in the Arctic Ocean," says Lee Cooper, a researcher currently at the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science, who has spent more than 20 years studying the Chukchi.

This region, like much of the circumpolar Arctic, has been undergoing profound ecological changes in recent years, as global warming has affected the Arctic much more dramatically than it has temperate latitudes. Researchers have already documented some of the resulting ecological ripples and fear that bringing industry in will compound the stress of ice-dependent species already coping with retreating summer ice cover, which in 2007 reached its lowest levels since satellite observations began in 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Author Profile

Daniel Glick

Daniel Glick, a frequent contributor to Audubon, is a Colorado-based writer and the author of Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids, and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth (PublicAffairs).

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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