Iqaluit, Nunavut in December, 2014 looking out over Frobisher Bay. Photo credit: Dylan G. Clark©.

Heavy fuel oil threatens Arctic communities’ food security and environment

By Antonia Sohns, contributing writer

This October, Arctic sea ice extent was the lowest on record. Tourism, industry and shipping have viewed the increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean for its economic opportunities. While ominous for its climate change impacts and the speed of transformation in the North, last summer passengers on the luxury cruise liner the Crystal Serenity could tour the Northwest Passage from Anchorage, Alaska to New York City. With increased shipping traffic and development, shipping pollution and possible oil spills will threaten the food security of Northern communities, such as the 60,000 Inuit of Arctic Canada.

While Canada is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the Inuit population is facing food insecurity due to the high cost of imported food and decreasing consumption of traditional foods. The Artic peoples face food insecurity because they have limited access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food due to physical, social and economic factors. As a result, they are unable to meet their dietary needs and food preferences at all times. In fact, 70 percent of Inuit households in the Northern Territory of Nunavut are food insecure compared to eight percent food insecurity across Canada.

Growing Arctic communities and climate change challenge food security

Drying whitefish caught for subsistence by Inuvialuit at East Whitefish Station along the Beaufort Sea, Canada, July 2014. Photo credit: Hans Lennie.

Much of food insecurity in Northern Canada is the result of history, as Inuit populations used to be nomadic and survive off the land until the Canadian government forced Inuit to live in established settlements in the High Arctic in the 1950s. The concentrated, permanent populations in the Arctic challenged the Inuit subsistence living tradition. Today Inuit continue to hunt and gather food to provide for their communities, but gathering enough food is becoming difficult as populations are booming. Between 1996 and 2006, the Inuit population grew by 26 percent. This rapid growth is expected to continue, as the median age of Inuit is 23.

Large populations will demand more from the land and sea and stress the traditional sharing economy, where country food is not bought or sold, but elders redistribute food to kin and community. It is possible to supplement traditional diets with imported food, but store-bought goods are often unaffordable. Communities in Nunavut, like many across the Arctic, are remote and accessible only by boat or plane for much of the year. The great distance the food must travel to Nunavut means residents pay more than twice as much for food than residents of southern Canada. In 2007, a nutritious diet for a family of four in the North was estimated to cost between CAD$18,200 and $23,400 a year, and yet median annual income for Inuit is approximately CAD$16,500.

Food security is being made worse by climate change. As global temperatures rise, sea ice is disappearing. While fluctuations in sea ice extent are natural, long-term trends are indicating that there is not only less sea ice in the Arctic, but the existing ice is younger, having formed the previous autumn and winter. As these warmer conditions persist, sea ice growth is slower and the thinner, younger ice melts more easily. Scientists now estimate that as soon as September 2030 there may be no Arctic sea ice.

Less sea ice heralds a new era of ship traffic and risks

Growth of Arctic sea ice extent in October is the lowest on record. Image credit: Washington Post, JAXA, adapted by Zachary Labe.

This sea ice retreat in the Arctic will allow ships to navigate more freely, but their movement through the ice may threaten Inuit food security through risks such as potential oil and chemical spills, marine mammal strikes, invasive species present in ballast water and shipping pollutants.

Greater ship traffic in the Arctic could result in wildlife disturbance and habitat fragmentation. As ships break through ice, new openings occur which can confuse marine mammals and cause them to become trapped too far from the ice edge, or separate seal mother-pup pairs. Adverse impacts on seal populations would significantly threaten Inuit livelihoods and food security. In Nunavut, seals are a crucial source of food and sealing represents between CAD$4 and $6 million of food annually. Additionally, the disappearing sea ice may prevent hunters from traveling along traditional routes to hunting grounds.

The Arctic Council has described [HFO] as “the most significant threat from ships to the Arctic marine environment.”

Oil spills are also a major threat to Inuit food security due to shipping’s use of heavy fuel oil, which the Arctic Council has described as “the most significant threat from ships to the Arctic marine environment.” Currently, HFO comprises three-quarters of bunkerfuel aboard vessels in the Arctic. Large commercial vessels, such as cargo ships, prefer HFO because it is less expensive and more readily available than cleaner distillate fuels, such as marine gas oil.

Bearded seal hunted for subsistence by Inuit at Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, April 2014. Photo credit: Tagak Curley.

HFO poses unique risks to the sensitive Arctic environment because HFO contributes to black carbon emissions, which accelerate ice melt. Shipping’s use of HFO may also threaten the Arctic environment in the event of an oil spill. If such an accident occurred, HFO would emulsify and form a voluminous, thick mixture far greater than the size of the original spill. The challenging Arctic climate would make cleanup efforts difficult, and there are few oil response resources in the High Arctic to limit the magnitude of the spill. Due to the nature of HFO, it would deposit on the coasts and freeze into ice masses. The remaining HFO would begin a cycle of sinking and rising in the Arctic Ocean, therefore contaminating the Arctic environment for decades into the future. As the Inuit are inextricably linked to the marine environment for food, such as Arctic char and seal, any oil spill could devastate the slowly growing and sensitive Arctic marine ecosystems, and jeopardize Inuit food security.

In March 2016 President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau emphasized the need to address risks presented by HFO and black carbon emissions due to shipping. Indigenous speakers and advocacy groups in the Arctic are building on that work by urging the International Maritime Organization to adopt a legally binding instrument to end HFO use in the Arctic by 2020. There is an existing precedent in the case of the Antarctic waters, where HFO use is already banned. HFO could therefore be barred from the Arctic too.

As the disappearance of sea ice reignites interest in the Arctic for tourism, energy development and shipping, the Arctic environment and Inuit communities will be faced with many challenges. The international community should support solutions put forth by the Inuit and aim to reduce HFO use in shipping. This may mitigate the impacts of climate change and improve Inuit food security.