For most of its history, the Arctic Ocean has been locked beneath a layer of sea ice. Even in high summer, much of the surface remains frozen. While inhospitable for most people except the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, these extreme conditions nurture an astonishing array of wildlife, thanks in part to the massive phytoplankton blooms that flourish when the ice retreats. These tiny plants form the base of a food web that includes animals, like bowhead and beluga whales, narwhals and walrus. The rich waters also attract seasonal feeders like humpback and grey whales, and migratory birds such as the Arctic tern and king eider.
The persistent ice and harsh weather have limited industrial development in the Arctic, but a warming climate is opening up previously inaccessible areas to shipping, fishing, and oil and gas exploitation. While climate change is hitting all of the world’s oceans, devastating coral reefs in the tropics, and stimulating rising seas, increased acidity, and extreme storms, its effects are magnified in the Arctic. The region is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, and this year marked a new record low for Arctic sea ice that has been shrinking steadily since measurement began in 1979. Across the Arctic Ocean, temperatures this winter were about 2.5°C above average, with parts of the Chukchi and Barents seas registering 5°C above average. February heat waves had the thermostat soaring 15°C above normal. Experts warn the Arctic could be ice-free this century if current trends continue, and the fabled Northwest Passage that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans could become a major international shipping route.
The natural barriers that have kept this smallest of the world’s oceans pristine are literally melting away, and the Arctic’s singular wonders are in jeopardy, as warming and economic development threaten to outpace conservation efforts. That is why UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre partnered with IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to shine a light on the Arctic Ocean’s most unique and significant ecosystems. We hope to inspire collective action to save the region’s treasures before they are lost forever, including through the use of the 1972 World Heritage Convention.
With support from the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and WWF Canada, we convened experts from around the world to explore the Arctic Ocean’s archipelagos, straits, fjords, and polynyas—areas of open water surrounded by sea ice.
Earlier this week, we launched a report that summarizes a decade of study and discussion. Entitled “Natural Marine World Heritage in the Arctic Ocean, report of an expert workshop and review process,” it highlights seven possible treasures among many in the Arctic Ocean, including one of the world’s great migration corridors, the world’s largest fjord system, the largest single species aggregation of seabirds, and areas of critical habitat for narwhal, walrus, beluga and bowhead whales, polar bear, ivory gulls, little auks, and king eiders. Most of these Arctic gems lack any form of protection today.
The Arctic Ocean stretches 14 million square kilometers across the top of the planet. Bordered by the Russian Federation, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Canada and the United States of America, among others, the Arctic is connected to nations around the world through the migration of whales and seabirds that visit its teeming waters each summer. Despite its global importance, we are only beginning to understand and protect the Arctic. It has just a single World Heritage marine site. The Natural System of Wrangel Island Reserve (Russian Federation), inscribed in 2004, boasts the world’s largest population of Pacific walrus, with up to 100,000 animals congregating in the island’s rookeries, and the highest density of ancestral polar bear dens. Research suggests that some humpback whales from the World Heritage-listed Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino in Mexico travel all the way to the waters off Wrangel Island for summer feeding.
While home to just 0.05% of the world’s human population, the Arctic Ocean is integral to the way of life of indigenous communities that have been hunting and fishing there since time immemorial. UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and its partners recognize that conservation efforts in the Arctic must consider both natural and cultural significance. It is our hope that this report will inspire the nations that border the Arctic Ocean to look more closely at the wonders off their shores, and take action to conserve them for the benefit of all the Earth’s people. Just as the world has come together under the Paris Climate Agreement to address the threat of global warming, we must also work together to protect this region where many of the effects of climate change are being felt most acutely.
The report “Natural Marine World Heritage in the Arctic Ocean, report of an expert workshop and review process” was the result of a 4-year research initiative led by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the US-based Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), in partnership with UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre. This work was made possible through the generous support of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and WWF Canada. I thank the authors of the report for their dedication and expertise: Lisa Speer, Robbert Casier, Regan Nelson, Maria Gavrilo, Cecilie von Quillfeldt, Jesse Cleary, Patrick Halpin and Patricia Hooper.
More information is available here: http://whc.unesco.org/en/arctic
Dr. Fanny Douvere is the coordinator of the Marine Programme at UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in Paris, France. Since October 2009, her mission is to ensure the 49 marine sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List are conserved and sustainably managed so future generations can continue to enjoy them. She recently wrote in Nature on why not investing in marine World Heritage is a lost opportunity for the oceans.
Prior to her work at the World Heritage Centre, she co-initiated and led the Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) initative at UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. In 2009 she co-published the UNESCO guide Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-Step Approach Toward Ecosystem-based Management. The guide has gained international recognition for setting a standard for the application of MSP and is available in six languages. She also served as an advisor to the United States Executive Office of the President (Council of Environmental Quality) on the development of the US Framework for Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning.
She co-authored more than 20 articles in internationally peer-reviewed journals on both marine World Heritage and MSP. Most recently, she authored for World Heritage Marine Sites Managing effectively the world’s most iconic Marine Protected Areas. A Best Practice Guide, in which she lays out a tangible approach for marine protected area management based on the fundamental idea that all things happen in time and space and the oceans should be managed accordingly.
Fanny obtained her PhD in 2010 from the Ghent University in Belgium and published the book Marine Spatial Planning: Concepts, current practice and linkages to other management approaches.