FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
WHAT'S THIS CAMPAIGN ABOUT?
We're coming together to push for action to save the Arctic. That means creating a global sanctuary in the uninhabited area around the North Pole (the region some people call the High Arctic) and a ban on offshore oil drilling and industrial fishing in the wider Arctic region.
WHAT'S A GLOBAL SANCTUARY?
It's an area of the globe under legal protection that's off-limits to the polluters – a place dedicated to science and research. In Antarctica — at the other end of the Earth — a World Park was declared, so the destructive mining industry can't operate there. Greenpeace played a key role in protecting this area back in the 1990s. We're aiming to create a sanctuary at the other pole, on top of the world. Right now it belongs to no one, it's classified as the High Seas and the international seabed, but the Arctic states are submitting claims, saying it's their territory. They want to open up the seabed to the polluters, so before the countries and corporations can get their hands on it, we're going to secure it for all life on Earth.
AND THE FIRST STEP IS A UN RESOLUTION?
World leaders gather every September at the UN HQ in New York. We want them to pass a UN resolution expressing international concern for the Arctic. That means persuading more than half the world's governments that this needs to happen. A resolution at the UN General Assembly could help create the momentum we need to push for an agreement to create the sanctuary and a ban on offshore oil drilling and unsustainable industrial fishing in the region.
HOW CAN I DO MORE TO HELP THE CAMPAIGN?
The first thing to do, if you haven't done it already, is to sign your name at www.savethearctic.org. Get your friends and family to sign on as well, share our campaign film, and let's mobilize as many people as we can as quickly as we can. We're taking on the world's most powerful countries and corporations here, this isn't going to be easy, but when we win it will be because there are so many more of us than them.
BUT THE ARCTIC STATES DON'T WANT THIS CAMPAIGN TO SUCCEED, THEY WANT TO OPEN UP THE ARCTIC TO THE POLLUTERS DON'T THEY?
The Arctic states share a great responsibility to protect the Arctic. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea even gives special attention to semi-enclosed seas and ice-covered waters and calls for nations to co-operate to ensure that the environment is protected. In other words, international law says they should be doing what we want them to do. It's going to require political will in the capital cities of the Arctic states, and that's where we come in. Through force of numbers and the strength of our cause we will change attitudes in those countries and force governments to act.
FOUR MILLION PEOPLE LIVE IN THE ARCTIC. IS THE SANCTUARY GOING TO COVER WHERE THEY LIVE?
This movement is not asking for the whole Arctic to be declared a sanctuary — and we do not want a ban on all fishing. Instead we're campaigning for a sanctuary in the High Arctic. That's the uninhabited area around the North Pole — a place where nobody lives, an area that will come under pressure from polluters as the ice melts. We're talking about the area sometimes called the ‘Arctic donut hole' — the area more than 200 nautical miles from the coastlines of the Arctic states. In Russia we are already seeing the oil industry's destructive effect on the Arctic. The people there have had their way of life and their future destroyed by big oil. This must not happen in the rest of the Arctic.
As Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo has said: “The Arctic is coming under assault and needs people from around the world to stand up and demand action to protect it. A ban on offshore oil drilling and unsustainable fishing would be a huge victory against the forces raging against this precious region and the four million people who live there. And a sanctuary in the uninhabited area around the pole would in a stroke stop the polluters colonising the top of the world without infringing on the rights of Indigenous communities.”
WHY DOES THE ARCTIC NEED PROTECTING NOW?
The Arctic is a unique and vulnerable environment. As well as being home to many species found nowhere else on Earth, the region also plays a critical role in regulating the global climate. But the Arctic is under threat — from climate change, from oil companies looking to drill in the dangerous and fragile waters of the Arctic Ocean, from industrial fishing and from shipping, all facilitated by the retreat of the sea ice. In 30 years we have lost 75 percent of the Arctic sea ice (measured by volume in the summer). As the ice melts, companies are moving in to exploit the oil, precious metals and fish, and are anxious to use the northern routes to shorten shipping journeys. This brings threats of oil and other spills, pollution, and underwater noise, invasive species, overfishing and habitat damage.
WHY DOES THE MELTING OF THE ARCTIC SEA ICE MATTER TO ME?
It matters to everyone on the planet because the Arctic acts as the world's refrigerator, keeping the planet cool. Burning fossil fuels that melt the ice is like leaving the global fridge door open. That's because ice is highly reflective. Most of the solar energy from the sun that hits ice when it arrives at ground level is reflected away, safely back out to space. Open ocean reflects less of the sunlight which reaches it, and absorbs more. The Arctic sea ice is acting like a sun hat, keeping the entire world cool — lose it, and the entire world heats up faster. A further danger is methane release. There are methane deposits inside the Arctic circle, sealed in place by ice or permafrost, and also huge amounts of dead vegetation, which will decay and release methane and CO2 if it thaws. Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas, which has a short-term warming impact many times that of CO2. Recently methane releases in the Arctic have caused alarm in the scientific community, although the lack of good historical data makes it difficult to determine how unusual this is. Like a layer of plastic wrap covering a bowl of soup, Arctic sea ice keeps the churning ocean underneath it from splashing up against the coast. A thick layer of sea ice absorbs the power of big waves, preventing them from slamming into beaches and sea cliffs. But as the ice melts, the ocean has started to tear away at coastlines and to flood seaside villages.
HOW MUCH OIL IS THERE UNDER THE ARCTIC? DON'T WE NEED IT?
The US Geological Survey estimates that the region holds 13 percent of the world's undiscovered reserves, or about 90 billion barrels. But this is nothing more than a guess – no one really knows how much oil there is or whether it will be possible to extract it. But 90 million barrels would only feed the world's oil addiction for about three years, but at the expense of allowing polluting industries to move wholesale into the Arctic. We should be investing in low-carbon solutions instead, so our cars can be powered by renewable energy in the long term and use much less oil in the short term.
HOW LIKELY IS AN OIL SPILL IN THE ARCTIC?
Operating in the freezing, icy waters of the Polar Regions is incredibly risky and an oil spill there would be absolutely devastating. The oil industry itself admits that there would be very little it could really do to stop a Deepwater Horizon-style blowout in the Arctic, meaning that this unique ecosystem, and the Indigenous communities that depend on it for their livelihoods, would be devastated.
And it's only because of the retreat of the sea ice in the Arctic that Big Oil companies like Shell can access new oil fields more easily. It's lunacy that Shell sees the disappearance of the sea ice as a business opportunity rather than a stark warning to the world.
The extreme cold, the threat from passing icebergs, the poor visibility and the remoteness greatly raises the risk of a spill in the part of the Arctic that Shell plans to drill in. Some of these icebergs are likely to be too big to be towed away from the drill ships, meaning the rigs themselves will have to be moved at very short notice.
If a blowout or leak was to occur, it could take months for another rig to drill a relief well (often the only solution to such an event). If the leaking well wasn't sealed before the winter sea-ice closed in, the oil could flow all winter, becoming trapped below the ice, and possibly leaking unchecked for up to two years.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service estimated a one in-five chance of a major spill occurring over the lifetime of activity in just one block of leases in the Arctic Ocean near Alaska Such an event would be disastrous for the wildlife in the region; the environmental consequences of a spill in the Arctic environment would be far more serious than in warmer seas such as the Gulf of Mexico.
WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO THE WILDLIFE?
The impact of a spill on Arctic wildlife would be devastating, including significant long-term impacts on polar bears, whose homes are melting beneath them, narwhals, Arctic foxes, owls, orcas and breeding colonies of Atlantic puffins and razorbills. Marine mammals, such as seals and walruses, may be affected through the food chain.
Alaska alone has over 40,000 miles of coastline — more than the rest of the USA combined — and an oil spill would have a catastrophic impact on local wildlife and fishing. The region is a vital habitat for species found nowhere else in the USA, such as polar bears, various seals, bowhead whales, numerous fish species and birds like the king eider and gyrfalcon.
IS THERE A SERIOUS THREAT OF MILITARY CONFRONTATION OVER THE ARCTIC?
Nobody is saying war is about to break out. But the Arctic is witnessing a significant build-up of military forces as the region opens up to resource industries.
A research paper has warned that the build-up threatens to undermine stability in the region. According to the report — Climate Change and International Security: the Arctic as a Bellwether – growth of military forces in the Arctic is increasingly designed for combat rather than policing.
The paper, published by the US not-for-profit organisation, the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), warns: "Although the pursuit of co-operation is the stated priority, most of the Arctic states have begun to rebuild and modernise their military capabilities in the region. The new military programs have been geared towards combat capabilities that exceed mere constabulary capacity." It adds: "States such as Norway and Russia are building new naval units designed to engage in high-intensity conflicts. While this capability may be understood as prudent, the ability of rivals to intimidate or subdue with sophisticated weapons systems could, if collegiality falters, undermine diplomacy and stability in the region."