‘Last Ice Area’ Could Be Last Chance for Arctic Animals

Aerial view of a group of narwhals (Monodon monoceros) migrating through Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, Canada, one of the seven Last Ice Area sites. © naturepl.com / Doug Allan / WWF

WWF is desperately trying to save the ominously named “Last Ice Area” — a region of the Arctic Sea that is most likely to survive the longest in the face of global warming — in hopes of creating havens for the Arctic species that are rapidly losing habitat due to climate change.

Arctic Sea ice has been disappearing at a steady rate in the face of rising global temperatures over the past 30 years, but the region has seen alarming drops in sea ice during the past five years or so, as more ice melts each summer and less ice forms each winter. That’s putting a lot of stress on the world’s ice-dependent species, such as polar bears, whales, seals, walruses, narwhals, and all the other organisms that make up the Arctic marine ecosystem.

Remember Al Gore’s polar bear? We’re closer than ever to that reality.

WWF has identified seven sites in the Arctic region that it believes could serve as sea ice arks for the vulnerable species as more and more habitat is lost. It teamed up with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and UNESCO’s World Heritage Center for a report calling for the seven “ecoregions” of the Arctic, which make up the Last Ice Area, to be considered for World Heritage Site designation.

These seven sites make up the Last Ice Area that the WWF is hoping will receive World Heritage Site designation. © 2017 International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

Doing so won’t stop the ice from melting, but it will help to ensure those areas remain protected as wildlife refuges from other man-made threats while the rest of the Arctic sea ice disappears.

“Melting ice means the Arctic is opening to new human activity in the ocean, such as offshore oil and gas development, shipping and fishing,” Prince Albert II of Monaco, whose foundation has taken up the Arctic Sea cause, wrote in a preface to the report. “These activities have the potential to inflict further stress on Arctic marine ecosystems already straining under the effects of climate change.”

The seven proposed sites include the entire Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the North Baffin Bay Ecoregion and the North Water Polynya region, as well as the Bering Strait, the Great Siberian Polynya in Russia, and Disko Bay and Store Hellefiskebanke Ecoregions in Greenland.

“These sites, identified by WWF more than 10 years ago, can be a refuge for ice-dependent species that will move northward as the planet warms,” the organization said. It’s hoping the report will demonstrate the outstanding universal value (OUV) of these seven sites in the Arctic Ocean, which is one of the main criteria for World Heritage Site designation. If successful, the Last Ice Area could help protect the Arctic species from complete decimation.

The UNESCO committee that votes on World Heritage Sites will have their next vote in July.

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