Dr. Mark Urban Explains in “Science” Why We Need Arctic Sea Ice to Survive
How important is Arctic ice to people who live far from it? Leading biologist Dr. Mark C. Urban has taken on this question in a recent article in “Science” about the urgent need for MAPS, the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary. Dr. Urban is a volunteer MAPS Ambassador; director of the Center for Biological Risk; and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut, USA. His article centres around the far-reaching global consequences of the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice. It raises awareness of the urgent need to afford similar protection to the Arctic Ocean as has existed for decades in Antarctica.
Explaining the critical importance of the Arctic sea ice, Dr. Urban says that for millions of years, “humans have evolved in this icy world, and civilization relied on it for climatic, ecological and political stability.” By reflecting sunlight, Arctic ice acts as Earth’s air conditioner. Yet, it is melting at a staggering rate. Last year, both the National Snow and Ice Data Center and the Polar Science Center reported that the Arctic sea ice extent was the second lowest on record. “The ice also determines who gets rain,” writes Dr. Urban. “Loss of Arctic sea ice can make it rain in Spain, dry out Scandinavian hydropower, and set California ablaze. And declining sea ice threatens wildlife, from the iconic polar bear to algae that grow beneath the sea ice, supporting an abundance of marine life.”
Dr. Urban notes that the melting ice is also making the 90 billion barrels of oil and 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas buried in the Arctic seabed accessible to exploitative interests. If extracted and burned, these fossil fuels would only exacerbate today’s myriad global humanitarian and ecological crises. There is also the very real threat of a militarized Arctic Ocean, as “Arctic nations are now racing to find undersea evidence that extends their continental shelves poleward, which would allow them to control these resources and substantiate military claims.”
Devastating Global Impacts from the Loss of Arctic Sea Ice
Citing the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, which details the devastating global impacts from the decline of the ice, Dr. Urban emphasizes the urgent need for the world community—scientists in particular—to unite to safeguard what’s left. He says, “The scientific community should advocate…for protecting the Arctic Ocean from exploitation.” Antarctica provides a precedent. In the 1950s, scientists lobbied world leaders “to protect Antarctica in perpetuity,” and in 1959, “twelve countries signed the Antarctic Treaty to preserve the continent for peaceful scientific discovery rather than territorial and military gain.”
“Sixty years later,” writes Dr. Urban, “we must now save the Arctic…. A new Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary (MAPS) Treaty—a proposed addendum to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea—would protect the Arctic Ocean as a scientific preserve for peaceful purposes only. Similar to Antarctica, MAPS would prohibit resource extraction, commercial fishing and shipping, seismic testing, and military exercises.” Arctic coastal states must agree that preserving the Arctic Ocean “is better than fighting over it.” Dr. Urban encourages scientists to help persuade world leaders to sign the MAPS Treaty, “by giving statements of support (at signmaps.org), asking scientific organizations to endorse the Treaty, (and) communicating the importance of protecting the Arctic to the public and policy-makers.”
In closing, Dr. Urban gives the sobering warning: “Humans have only ever lived in a world topped by ice.” He encourages us to “work together to protect Arctic ecosystems, keep the northern peace, and allow the sea ice to return.” For the sake of all life on Earth, MAPS must swiftly become a reality.