Scientists’ Call for MAPS, the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary

This open letter is an emergency call for humanity to recognize the severe and complex conditions of the Arctic Ocean which threaten the health of the entire world. We stand in solidarity to establish the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary (MAPS) for the wellbeing of all and to protect our shared future.  

As scientists, we work to discover the truth about the world around us. When what we see is a grave warning on a global scale, we have a moral imperative to speak up. Today, we must call the attention of humanity to the crisis in the Arctic Ocean, which is a crisis for all life on Earth. The global impact of damage to this ecosystem is real, growing, and measured in deaths from hunger, natural disasters, mass migration, and species loss. We must emphasize that our collective survival is at stake, and that partial measures cannot succeed. While subsistence fishing and cultural activity can continue, all commercial exploitation of the Arctic Ocean must end—not just in the international waters known as the High Seas, but including all coastlines within the Arctic Circle, because the majority of exploitation takes place outside the High Seas. As Arctic ice vanishes and the global consequences multiply, there is still a window to avert total catastrophe. However, an immediate response is required, on a time scale measured in weeks and months rather than years. This is achieved through MAPS.

The Arctic Ocean Is a Unique Global Life Support

The Arctic Ocean is a singularly important ecosystem that affects all life on the planet. Though it is just 1% of the world’s total ocean volume, it drives the global oceanic conveyor belt: the currents of cool/warm and fresh/salty water that connect all the oceans of the world. It also governs the jet stream carrying atmospheric patterns across North America, Europe, and Asia that are essential for successful food crops and available fresh water. But its climate influence is not limited to the Northern Hemisphere. Since it affects the entire planetary ocean network, which accounts for 70.8% of the atmosphere’s lower surface, it affects weather patterns everywhere.

The Arctic Ocean also has an outsized influence on the planet through the albedo effect: the degree to which an object can reflect the sun’s rays. The white ice of both the North and South Poles are key to keeping the planet cool through the albedo effect which sends much of the sun’s heat back out into space. However, the two regions differ in significant ways. The South Pole is on a mountainous continent, covered in ice up to thousands of metres thick. The varying terrain reduces its albedo because the surface area is neither uniformly exposed to light nor consistently formed at the right angles to reflect it effectively back into the atmosphere.1 In contrast, the North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, which is covered by ice just a few metres thick. Where ice is present, the flat ocean surface has greater albedo than Antarctica’s land ice, yet the sea ice is far more vulnerable to melting and other disruption. Arctic sea ice is key to keeping the Earth from absorbing an excess of solar heat.

The Arctic Ocean Is Changing

The Arctic Ocean’s thin, yet critical, shield is vanishing. Since regular measurement of Arctic sea ice levels began in 1979, 95% of the oldest and thickest ice has melted.2 There is now 75% less ice in the summer.3 The Arctic region is the fastest-warming region on the planet and is shedding land ice alone at 14,000 tons per second.4,5 Parts of the Arctic Ocean have become up to 7ºC warmer than normal,6 and it could experience an ice-free summer in little more than a decade if carbon emissions remain high.7

Damage to the Arctic Ocean Is Affecting Lives Now

As the Arctic sea ice melts, the water absorbs the sun’s heat.8 The increased warmth causes shifting (or stalling) ocean current systems,9,10 stronger tropical cyclones, and marine life migrating further toward the poles in search of cooler waters.11 These changes already threaten shelter and food sources for hundreds of millions of people.12

The Arctic albedo effect has been compromised. Uncovered Arctic waters release moisture into the atmosphere. As a result, the jet stream has become distorted,13 with a “polar vortex” of cold air that is no longer contained to the polar region. Nations below the Arctic Circle experience extreme cold, while the Arctic itself continues to heat up.14 Global rainfall patterns have become erratic,15 with droughts and floods increasingly common. Massive locust swarms, nourished by increased rainfall from tropical cyclones, have devastated food crops across Africa and South Asia.16

The warmer ocean warms the air, which then melts the nearby land ice—exposing humanity to the risk of up to 7.2m of sea level rise from the potential collapse of the Greenland Ice Sheet.17 With the loss of ice cover and the increased heat, Arctic terrain becomes vulnerable to fires. Wildfires in 2021 alone have consumed over 161,000 square km of Siberian forest, an area larger than all the forest fires of Greece, Turkey, Italy, the United States and Canada combined in that year, and generating carbon emissions equivalent to all the industry of Germany,18 due to unprecedented heat and drought north of the Arctic Circle.

Exploitation of the Arctic Ocean Is Incompatible with Survival

With Arctic waters increasingly open due to ice loss, exploitation has begun. Arctic shipping traffic on just one route has risen over 430% in the past three years alone.19 Multiple countries are still issuing oil exploration permits in Arctic waters20,21, despite a 2015 study warning that all Arctic oil and gas must remain in the ground to prevent warming past 2ºC.22 Militarization—much of it nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed—is escalating to levels not seen since the Cold War.23 What was once an impassable frontier has even become a new tourist attraction, with over 300 cruise excursions north of the Arctic Circle in the spring and summer of 2021.24

Commercial vessels also break up the Arctic sea ice and inhibit its regrowth. But the damage does not stop there. The heavy fuel burned by many large Arctic ships pollutes the atmosphere, darkens the ice with soot to diminish its albedo, and worsens the melt.25 ,26 The nuclear reactors powering an increasing number of Arctic icebreakers and submarines add ongoing heat to the water, and deepen the threat of a nuclear accident. All of these activities harm or threaten marine life with extreme noise, pollution, ship strikes, or habitat destruction. A recent International Monetary Fund study emphasized the critical importance of whales in reducing atmospheric carbon.27 It should be noted that 17 species of cetaceans, almost a quarter of the world’s 93 species, live in the Arctic Ocean for at least part of the year. 10 of the 17 are officially listed as endangered, with others considered “depleted” or “at risk”.

The land in the Arctic region contains hazards that growing heat and exploitation threaten to unleash. For example, permafrost—soil that normally never thaws—has been melting, both on the land and in the seabed. Contained within Arctic permafrost are large deposits of methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the short term.28 These deposits are often found alongside organic matter which contains pathogens known to still be viable even after millennia. In addition, nuclear weapons tests between 1955 and 1990 have left high levels of plutonium and caesium in the area.29 Trawl fishing, oil exploration, and dumping have the potential to trigger methane release at a catastrophic scale, not only creating immediate warming but potentially delivering pathogens or radioactive particles into the atmosphere.

The World Food Programme reported in 2021 that at least 155 million people experienced “acute food insecurity at crisis or worse levels—or equivalent—across 55 countries/territories” in 2020.30 Today, a child dies from hunger every ten seconds.31 As crops fail due to seawater encroachment, floods, droughts, or pests, global food security is at increasing risk.32 At the same time, water scarcity is on the rise. The 2021 UN Water Summary Progress Update notes that 2.3 billion people are now living in water-stressed countries.33 The 2018 UN World Water Development Report predicted 6 billion people would experience water scarcity by 2050. A 2019 NPJ Clean Water study warned that this was likely underestimated.34

Faced with heat, flooding, and crop failures, millions of people have already begun to flee their countries. A New York Times research project warns that 17% of the world—regions where billions of people now live—could be uninhabitably hot by 2070.35

Scientists warned in early 2021 that our world is already in an underestimated mass extinction event and we are headed for a “ghastly” future if we do not change.36

Behind all these numbers is unspeakable and growing misery. For the sake of our shared humanity, we who see the problem and know the needed response must speak up.

We Must Operate Within the Limits of Our Knowledge

Recognizing the urgent need for a healthy Arctic Ocean for our collective survival, some have recommended unconventional and risky techniques, such as blocking sunlight from arriving on the planet in order to keep temperatures low, attempting to refreeze Arctic ice through the use of 10 million wind-powered pumps, or even adding iron to the Arctic Ocean to feed phytoplankton, in an attempt to restore or replicate the Arctic Ocean’s function. However, it must be noted that many of these proposals are being put forward, not by Earth scientists, but by engineers. In some cases, they are even backed by oil businesses that stand to profit from continued exploitation of the Arctic Ocean.37

Such initiatives are costly and dangerous, with no track record and with unforetold consequences. Deflecting sunlight could have a devastating effect on plant life, or even on human mental health.38 Adding sulphate to the atmosphere could result in increased acid rain. The wind-powered pump “refreezing” scenario would actually create unintended warming.39 Increased iron in the Arctic Ocean could result in increased CO2 rather than a reduction and would violate both the London Protocol and the Convention on Biodiversity.40

It must also be noted that any technique to manipulate the climate could result in positive effects in some regions, yet gravely negative effects in others. This raises the troubling question of who would decide which regions prosper and which suffer.41 It also raises the concern that such a technique could be weaponized. Finally, such measures, once begun, may not be safely stopped or reversed.

To further interfere with what we have collectively broken, without immediately stopping the actions that broke it in the first place, demonstrates incoherency in our collective thinking and a lack of good faith. Scientists are duty-bound to admit the limitations of our knowledge, particularly when it comes to the potential consequences of such large-scale interference with Nature. To attempt to salvage or control the Arctic Ocean by manipulating it, instead of giving Nature a chance to regenerate, runs the unacceptable risk of perpetuating the crisis in which we find ourselves.

Arctic High Seas Protection Is Not Enough

Arctic protection measures that focus on the Arctic High Seas are insufficient, because the majority of exploitation putting the Arctic Ocean—and the world—at risk happens closer to shore, far beyond the bounds of the High Seas. To limit Arctic Ocean protection to the High Seas is to allow such exploitation to continue, at the cost of billions of lives. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as it stands permits this. It must change if we are to avert global catastrophe.

Full Arctic Ocean Protection Measures Required Now

All measures to keep the world cool and prevent species loss, such as reforestation, coral reef preservation, or carbon capture and storage, depend on the climate stability afforded by a healthy Arctic Ocean. For example, a forest cannot thrive amidst repeated droughts and wildfires. Carbon capture methods risk being sidelined if a severe Arctic methane explosion undermines the global economy.42 Yet, while the Antarctic Treaty has protected the world’s South Pole since 1959, no protection of this type exists for the much more vulnerable North.

Every summer as the ice retreats, Arctic Ocean exploitation intensifies and becomes more normalized in public perception. Already, key international marine and Arctic organizations take it as a given that exploitation will continue and seek to regulate it rather than stop it.43,44 Our world cannot afford more exploitative Arctic summers.

MAPS, the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary, is the only initiative proposed today that adequately protects the Arctic Ocean, and by extension, all life. While continuing to permit the subsistence fishing and cultural activity on which coastal communities depend, it ends all commercial exploitation and militarization in ocean waters north of the Arctic Circle.

Since the Arctic Ocean is critical to all life on Earth, MAPS is by necessity a global initiative. Being entirely marine-based, it has no impact on any territorial land claims or interests. It supports the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

By eliminating the possibility of exploiting Arctic seabed oil and gas, MAPS keeps an estimated 148 trillion kg of CO2 from entering the atmosphere and catalyzes the global shift off fossil fuels.45 MAPS supports every United Nations Sustainable Development Goal. At 8 million square km, it is the largest marine protected area in history. It singlehandedly protects 2.2% of the world’s oceans, in a time when scientists warn we must rapidly protect half the planet.46 As such, MAPS is not an aspirational goal, but a baseline necessity.

That is why we, the undersigned scientists, unequivocally and unanimously call for the immediate realization of MAPS as an urgently needed safeguard for the collective fate of the world.

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1 https://atmos.uw.edu/~david/Hahn_etal_2020.pdf

2 https://arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card/Report-Card-2018/ArtMID/7878/ArticleID/780/SeanbspIce

3 https://e360.yale.edu/features/as_arctic_ocean_ice_disappears_global_climate_impacts_intensify_wadhams

4 https://phys.org/news/2021-05-arctic-faster-planet.html

5 https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aaf2ed

6 https://arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card/Report-Card-2019/ArtMID/7916/ArticleID/840/Sea-Surface-Temperature

7 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/arctic-summer-sea-ice-could-be-gone-by-2035

8 https://e360.yale.edu/features/as_arctic_ocean_ice_disappears_global_climate_impacts_intensify_wadhams

9 https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2019/03/20/amoc-ocean-conveyor-belt-climate-change/

10 https://www.climatesignals.org/scientific-reports/evidence-linking-rapid-arctic-warming-mid-latitude-weather-patterns

11 https://phys.org/news/2021-04-climate-marine-species-poleward.html

12 https://insideclimatenews.org/news/01032019/climate-change-ocean-fish-seafood-decline-data-warming-paris-agreement-study/

13 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-43823-1

14 https://www.climatesignals.org/scientific-reports/warm-arctic-episodes-linked-increased-frequency-extreme-winter-weather-united

15 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-change-is-altering-rainfall-patterns-worldwide/

16 http://www.fao.org/ag/locusts/en/info/2094/index.html

17 https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2019/study-predicts-more-long-term-sea-level-rise-from-greenland-ice

18 https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment-and-conservation/2021/08/siberias-massive-wildfires-are-unlocking-extreme-carbon-pollution

19 https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/02/28/russian-arctic-shipping-up-430-in-3-years-a69454

20 https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/industry-and-energy/2021/06/norway-offers-oil-firms-70-new-barents-sea-exploration-blocks

21 https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/02/14/russias-new-arctic-project-will-be-biggest-in-global-oil-rosneft-a69294

22 https://www.nature.com/articles/nature14016

23 https://carnegieeurope.eu/2019/11/28/military-and-environmental-challenges-in-arctic-pub-80424

24 Based on a survey of Arctic cruises available to book in spring 2021 through August 2021 as seen on travel websites, whose routes were at least in part north of the Arctic Circle. This figure included multi-day, multi-port excursions as well as single-day whale-watching cruises.

25 https://pame.is/projects/arctic-marine-shipping/arctic-shipping-status-reports/749-arctic-shipping-report-2-heavy-fuel-oil-hfo-use-by-ships-in-the-arctic-2019/file

26 https://www.pnas.org/content/101/2/423

27 https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2019/12/natures-solution-to-climate-change-chami.htm

28 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/06/cut-methane-emissions-rapidly-fight-climate-disasters-un-report-greenhouse-gas-global-heating

29 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-021-01162-y

30 https://www.wfp.org/publications/global-report-food-crises-2021

31 https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/people-and-poverty/hunger-and-obesity/how-many-people-die-from-hunger-each-year/story

32 http://www.fao.org/forestry/15538-079b31d45081fe9c3dbc6ff34de4807e4.pdf

33 https://www.unwater.org/publications/summary-progress-update-2021-sdg-6-water-and-sanitation-for-all/

34 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41545-019-0039-9

35 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/23/magazine/climate-migration.html

36 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419/full

37https://www.boell.de/en/2017/12/01/big-bad-fix-case-against-geoengineering

38 https://thebulletin.org/2008/05/20-reasons-why-geoengineering-may-be-a-bad-idea/

39 https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2019EF001230

40 FundacionTerram and Millennium Institute for Oceanography, Marine Geoengineering: A Great Risk for Chile, 2020, pp 4.

41 https://www-cdn.law.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/bunzl.pdf

42 https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/cost-of-arctic-methane-release-could-be-size-of-global-economy-warn-experts

43 https://imoarcticsummit.org/press/mepc-76-international-shipping-body-drops-the-ball-on-arctic-climate-crisis/

44 https://arctic-council.org/news/navigating-the-future-of-arctic-shipping/

45 The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates the energy equivalent of 346 billion barrels of oil buried offshore and above the Arctic Circle. The United States Environmental Protection Agency tells us that if one barrel of oil is burned, 430 kgs of CO2 is released. Therefore, MAPS prevents up to (346 billion)*(430) = 148 trillion kgs of CO2 from being released. (USGS, EPA)

46 https://www.academia.edu/54028869/Nature_needs_half_a_necessary_and_hopeful_new_agenda_for_protected_areas