The Arctic Ocean is key to ocean health around the planet as it has the biggest impact on the worldwide oceanographic circulation systems, and is thus responsible for water and food security around the world. Since 1980, the amount of summer Arctic sea ice has halved, changing the entire global marine biome and circulatory patterns.
Oceans cover 70 percent of our planet, thus what happens to them inevitably affects all of us. In fact, the livelihoods of 3 billion people across the world – nearly half of the global population – depend directly on marine ecosystems (Jurkschat, 2020). As a natural carbon sink, oceans absorb roughly one-third of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. However, this CO2 is causing our oceans to acidify significantly, destroying coral reefs throughout the world’s shallow waters.
Despite being key to the survival of our planet, the Arctic Ocean rarely receives attention. Out of our seven oceans, the Arctic is most vulnerable to change while undergoing the most rapid change. Since 1980, the Arctic Ocean’s summer sea ice has halved, from seven to roughly three million square kilometers (Carmack et al., n.d.).
A warming Arctic will affect life in the Arctic Ocean, destroying the ecosystems of some sea organisms such as narwhals, polar bears, walrus, Saimaa ringed seals, orcas and Beluga whales (WWF, n.d.). Fisheries are moving northward, creating tensions between states, while also presenting new opportunities for exploitation, such as the case with snow crabs in Svalbard, Scandinavia and Russia (De Pooter, 2020).
The loss or degradation of delicate Arctic ecosystems can put marine life – as well as communities, livelihoods and cultural practices that depend on it – under immense pressure. Aquatic species, such as Arctic char, abundant in Arctic Sweden and Norway, are declining due to warming waters, affecting Sámi fishing practices and food security. By 2100, Arctic char populations could be reduced by 73 percent (Jonsson, 2020).
Having found up to 11,000 particles of microplastics in a single liter of melted sea ice, scientists identify marine microplastics as an emerging threat and conclude that the Arctic Ocean has the world’s highest microplastics concentrations out of all ocean basins in the world (Carmack et al., n.d.).
As new Arctic shipping routes open, oil spills and noise pollution become larger threats, further damaging fragile ecosystems. In 2020, Russia admitted to having caused the “world’s largest” oil spill in the Arctic, in Norilsk, totaling at roughly 21,000 tons of oil (The Moscow Times, 2020). The oil spill contaminated 350 square kilometers and bled into the Daldykan River, where the clean-up is estimated to take up to 10 years due, in part due to the lack of infrastructure (BBC, 2020).
WWF has developed ArcNet, an Arctic Ocean network of priority areas for conservation, to protect marine biodiversity across the Arctic.