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Arctic protections proposed in legislation

August 3, 2009 |  4:13 pm

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There is perhaps no starker messenger of climate change than the Arctic, where an alarming reduction in the once-perpetual ice pack has opened a Pandora's box of dangers and opportunities.

Polar bears are finding themselves stranded at sea. Walruses, having to search farther for food, are falling victim to wolves and polar bears. Oil and gas development is expanding. And the newly navigable waters have opened the Arctic seas for the first time to the possibility of tourism, shipping and perhaps even commercial-scale fishing.

In an attempt to head off drastic and devastating consequences before it's too late, as well as to capture the economic potential of the Arctic where practical, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) introduced a package of seven bills in Congress on issues in the Arctic that include oil exploration, health and diplomacy.

The proposed legislation would, among other things, coordinate the many tentacles of scientific research underway in the Arctic, set up a U.S. ambassador to the Arctic, build new operating bases for the Coast Guard and work on improving the know-how for cleaning up oil spills in inpenetrable icy waters.

"Today in the Arctic, the sea ice is melting so fast most of it could be gone in 30 years," Begich said in a Senate floor speech. "The implications of that loss are enormous. Devastating for species such as the polar bear, walrus and seals, which depend on ice for their very survival. Life-altering for Arctic residents who have depended on marine mammals for their nutritional and cultural needs for thousands of years. Literally earth-shattering for entire Alaskan Arctic communities, which are being wiped away by erosion and thawing permafrost.

"When this global air conditioner is knocked off kilter, it accelerates climatic changes we are already witnessing around the globe that neither science nor our political systems can stop."

Conservationists have long been calling for a comprehensive approach to the effects of climate change in the Arctic. Kristen Miller of the Alaska Wilderness League called the proposed legislation "a good first step."

"However, these Arctic policies must be considered in the context of the massive plans for development already moving forward in the Arctic offshore environment. Without taking time to carefully reexamine the inadequate processes that put these plans in place, we could lose too much of the Arctic before any meaningful change can be made," she said.

Marilyn Heiman, U.S. Arctic Program director for the Pew Environment Group, said it is also important for the United States to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, an international agreement intended to define the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world's oceans, in advance of any new industrial activity in the Arctic.

-- Kim Murphy

Photo: Giant chunks of floating sea ice, where walruses cluster, are melting earlier every year. Credit: Liz Labunski / Associated Press.

 

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