The Last Ice

A guest post by Pete Ewins, WWF-Canada. Photo by Dennis Minty.

In fourteen years of travel with Adventure Canada, I’ve shared many magical moments with fellow passengers on the viewing decks, marvelling together at the enormous wild landscapes, seascapes, cultural history, and diverse and wonderful Arctic wildlife.

But one August morning stands above all others.

We were crossing Lancaster Sound in incredibly dense fog, lucky to see a few harp and bearded seals, and a polar bear. But overhead, hundreds of thick-billed murres and kittiwakes confidently commuted between cliff breeding colonies and rich foraging areas which we knew to be as far as two hundred kilometres away. Somehow they could navigate perfectly—without the benefit of the ship’s high-tech radar.

We were sailing over an area where years ago, long before rapid climate change was ever talked about, Canada had granted oil and gas exploration leases to oil giant Shell.

Everyone aboard the Adventure Canada ship knew the risks associated with oil spills, particularly in icy waters where, even to this day, there is no proven technique for effective cleanup.

That morning, the clash of values became so very clear: pristine ecosystems, concentrations of Arctic wildlife, Inuit coastal communities and their subsistence-harvesting lifestyle, and then the spectre of high-risk, big-oil developments and the inevitable accidents and long-term mess it would leave. Thankfully, the opportunity to safeguard Lancaster Sound and apply strong protection to these high Arctic marine and sea-ice areas is still intact.

The current federal government has committed to protect ten percent of Canada’s marine areas by 2020, and indicated at WWF-Canada’s Oceans Summit in 2016 that Lancaster Sound could soon receive designation as a large National Marine Conservation Area. Local Inuit, via the Qikitani Inuit Association, have been supportive of full protection for an even larger area of Lancaster Sound than the site suggested by Parks Canada—but this bigger boundary had long been thwarted by those Shell oil and gas leases. To unjam all this, WWF-Canada filed in federal court, and thankfully sense prevailed—Shell surrendered those old leases, removing the final barrier to marine protection for the incredible seascape we had sailed. Now, we’re eagerly anticipating a terrific Lancaster Sound announcement.

In this Anthropocene era of unprecedented rapid change, it is very clear that the Canadian High Arctic and its surrounding sea-ice areas—Lancaster Sound and north to the tip of Ellesmere Island, and west to the Beaufort Sea—will be an increasingly crucial home and refuge for wildlife species that evolved in persisting sea-ice conditions. We call this region the Last Ice Area (see map)—where Arctic sea-ice is projected to persist the longest in a region experiencing very rapid warming and loss of summer sea ice.

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Throughout the Arctic, these large areas require strong protection from high-risk human activities. This is what the sea-ice dependent species need in order to retain resilient populations and habitats in the face of dramatic change—species like the polar bear, narwhal, bowhead whale, walrus, ringed and bearded seals, and the food-chain species that support them.

This is at the core of our work at WWF-Canada. We thank all who travel with Adventure Canada to see wildlife and their habitat for themselves, and then help communicate the need for a modern approach to protecting these treasures while we still can. I’m already looking forward to this summer’s Arctic Safari, to celebrate important birthdays—Canada’s 150th, Adventure Canada’s 30th and WWF-Canada’s 50th—in this incredible northern Canadian home.

Pete Ewins is the lead specialist in species conservation with WWF-Canada. His polar bear-human conflict prevention work helps people and bears adapt to rapid climate change. Along with other WWF-Canada representatives, he will be joining the 2017 Arctic Safari expedition.

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