A Changing Ocean –
With Increasing Accessibility


Though known for its sub-zero climate, counter-intuitively the Arctic is the fastest-warming region on Earth. The Arctic’s northernmost environment, the Arctic Ocean, has warmed 0.75ºC over the last decade and by 3.3ºC since the 1880s, which is three times faster than the global average. The consequences of these changes are undeniable, destabilising, and far-reaching in oceanographic and ecological terms.

Indeed, the annual surveys of the Arctic Ocean’s rapidly reducing summer sea-ice cover – 4 million sq km over the last 40 years, representing a 40% reduction - have become the one of the most widely reported visible indicators of the real-world consequences of human-driven global climate change.

With the Central Arctic Ocean forecast to lose 100% of its perennial summertime floating ice-reef habitat by around 2050, our planet will also have lost one of its defining and globally important surface geophysical features in a single generation, namely the white reflective heat-shield that was the ‘ice cap’ around the North Pole.

Worse still, the Arctic Ocean is forecast to be a year-round ice-free environment within 100 years.

With its sea-ice cover reducing, due to rising ocean temperatures and changing atmospheric conditions, this least disturbed of ocean environments, previously inaccessible to surface vessels, is now seen by some as offering new commercial opportunities.

Biodiversity &
Ecosystem Services
at Risk

As the sea-ice cover, a unique floating ice-reef habitat recedes, its biodiversity from micro-organisms to plants and animals, and the associated life-supporting services, are likely already stressed, if not compromised.

At the heart of the argument to protect the Central Arctic Ocean’s biodiversity is the fundamental insight that the greater the diversity and abundance (ie complexity and connectivity) of biological life on Earth, the greater the capacity for ecosystems to develop and provide life-supporting ecosystem services like air purification, genetic resources, seafood production and carbon sequestration. Conversely, the more that abundancy is reduced and/or species are lost to extinction, the more our Earth's life-sustaining, self-regulating system is compromised.

The responses of the northern hemisphere’s oceans to greenhouse gas emissions may also result in the Central Arctic Ocean becoming the place-of-last-resort for marine species forced to head north to the coolest waters as their traditional waters to the south continue to heat up. Such a scenario would see the region providing a last-stop holding area for non-native species, until global ocean warming is brought under control - likely over millennia due to ocean chemistry and geophysics.

The greater the diversity and abundance of biological life on Earth, the greater its capacity to provide life-supporting ecosystem services like oxygen production, carbon absorption and food production.

“Stabilising global marine biodiversity is now essential to protect the life-support systems upon which we depend for our continued existence” David Attenborough, 2020

Surface Vessel Activity –
Introducing More Risks

As previously impassable areas become increasingly accessible, the Central Arctic Ocean presents an area of opportunity for vessels undertaking commercial exploration, exploitation and extraction. However, such activities introduce a host of ecological impacts, and their associated risks, that singularly and cumulatively reduce the resilience of the region’s species and the functionality of this unique ecosystem.

The stressors, impacts and risks come from the every-day operation of every type of vessel including fishing, cargo shipping, surveying, mining, cable/pipe-layers, and tourism cruisers. It is these ‘stressors’ that are disturbing, dispersive, damaging and potentially deadly:

Acoustic (sound/noise) stressors:

  • Acoustic noise from propeller cavitation
  • Mechanical & human-generated sounds
  • Sonar
  • Explosions
  • Trawl-noise
  • Seabed-surface mining extraction
  • Sub-seabed drilling/extraction
  • And activities associated with drilling-rigs/mother-platforms and support vessels.

Chemical stressors:

  • Solid waste disposal
  • Bilge water disposal
  • Treated (and untreated) grey water disposal
  • Treated (and untreated) sewage disposal
  • Accidental oil, fuel & chemical spills
  • Propeller shaft & gear-oil emissions
  • Residue dumping by cargo containers & dry bulk cargo vessels
  • And dark carbon particulates from heavy fuel oil usage.

Biological stressors:

  • Ballast water discharge (eg introduces invasive species)
  • Hull coatings & accretions (introduces chemicals and invasive species)
  • Marine-life extraction (eg by commercial fishing)
  • Bycatch, and its disposal (by commercial fishing)
  • And ship-strikes with large mammals

Physical stressors:

  • Cable-laying and pipe-laying installation (inc ploughing-in/back-filling of the seabed) and maintenance operations
  • Installation, maintenance and unplanned loss of surface and submerged geo-engineering infrastructure (eg floating photo-voltaic units)

The forecast continued reduction in sea-ice cover opens the way for a rapid escalation of these stressors.

While such activities are negligible today in the Central Arctic Ocean, the stressors above are only going to increase over the decades unless specific international measures are put in place to protect the biodiversity and the ecosystem services provided to the wider global community.

International Shipping

Once the barrier-to-entry posed by the sea ice is gone, the Central Arctic Ocean presents a significant time-saving, and therefore cost-saving, opportunity for international shipping due to the shorter route it offers between East Asia, North West Europe and the US East Coast.

Ecological impacts, and the consequential risks, are presented by all types of cargo vessel including container, dry bulk carriers, tankers, multi-purpose and general cargo ships. And while the range and scale of ecological impacts per vessel is of concern, it is the overall cumulative impact of the sheer number of vessels transiting the Arctic Ocean that puts at risk the region’s ecosystem.

With the scale of cumulative risk posed, it is anticipated the majority of ship-owners and shipping operators will choose to act responsibly in alignment with their global sustainability goals – and commit never to transiting any area of the Arctic Ocean (as some have already). And it is envisaged that any operators insisting on accessing the Arctic Ocean will be obliged to using designated shipping lanes, static and dynamic controls (eg reduced travel speeds and ‘anti-strike’ marine-life monitors), the lanes to be located immediately to the south of the Central Arctic Ocean.

Commercial Fishing

As the sea-ice cover retreats, these un-fished waters become an attractive opportunity for commercial fishing, but this could quickly set in motion catastrophic long-term consequences to the region’s biodiversity and the functioning of its ecosystem and the provision of its associated services.

Some fishing operators apply strategies, techniques, and equipment that can destroy significant areas of seabed, pinpoint shoals of fish down to 2,000 metres for comprehensive extraction, and be relatively indiscriminate in the range of species caught, sometimes resulting in a high percentage of the unwanted ‘bycatch’ being returned to the sea – dead.

Spectacular recognition of the super-vulnerability of the region’s species to commercial fishing became evident when the Arctic Council led the establishment of the ‘International Agreement to Prevent Unregulated Fishing in the High Seas of the Central Arctic Ocean’ (2021), with signatories including the USA, Canada, Iceland, Russia, Greenland/Denmark, Norway, China, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union. This voluntary agreement (ie not legally enforceable due to the current limitations of the High Seas Treaty) extends till 2037, with the potential to be renewed every 5 years after that. Meanwhile, it continues to be possible to fish in the region for those vessels ‘flagged’ from non-signatory nations.

Hydrocarbons & Minerals

Currently, there is no extraction occurring in the Central Arctic Ocean - nor in the wider UN IMO-defined Arctic Ocean region other than for hydrocarbons immediately offshore of the Alaskan coast (US) and in the Kara Sea (Russia), and offshore in the northern Barents Sea (Russia and Norway).

The sub-seabed geology of the Central Arctic Ocean, to the extent it is known to date, is thought not to indicate the presence of significant volumes of oil or natural gas. In addition, the costs of exploration, extraction, removal, and oil spill management are likely to be so high due to the depths, sea-ice cover, regional climate, and operational-environmental risks that such projects would likely prove unviable while fossil fuels are still in demand.

However several Arctic coastal states have lodged formal evidence-based claims with the appropriate UN body to be granted extensions to their national territorial rights for their seabeds and sub-seabeds, up to 150nm beyond their existing 200nm limits – and with approved claims will come mining rights to these areas.

To request a copy of 90 North Foundation's ‘Launch Overview 2022’, contact info@90northfoundation.org.