Arctic Development Is Ramping Up: What Do We Urgently Need to Know?

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy travels in the Beaufort Sea, northeast of Barrow, Alaska, 2011

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy travels in the Beaufort Sea, northeast of Barrow, Alaska, 2011 (Photograph courtesy NASA)




he Arctic is currently changing in ways we are still trying to grasp, but it is already dramatically, undeniably different than it was just 30 years ago. The white cover of sea ice that blankets the Arctic is receding dramatically in the summer months. Satellite data show the September minimum has shrunk by more than 11 percent per decade since 1979, researchers say.

As the volume and frequency of open water in the Arctic grows, so too does activity by oil and gas, shipping, mining, and other industries. Ship transit through the Bering Strait, the gateway from the North Pacific Ocean to the Arctic, more than doubled between 2008 and 2012, and sea traffic throughout the region continues to grow exponentially as it provides a shorter cargo route between Asia and Europe. At the same time, several companies seek to mine reserves that could contain as much as 22 percent of the world's undiscovered conventional oil and gas. (See related video: Experts use three words to describe the Arctic at The Arctic: The Science of Change live event.)

Questions, too, are mounting along with the activity. The Arctic nations—the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark (including Greenland), Norway, Iceland, Finland, and Sweden—now face unprecedented dilemmas over resource development, ecosystems protection, emergency response infrastructure, geopolitical boundaries, and many other effects of a changing northern climate.

Amid all these facets of the transforming Arctic, which of these areas do you think needs the most attention? What should we all be focusing on? Rate the options below and share your thoughts in the comments.

  • OPTION 1

    Industry plans for development in the Arctic

    Where are companies preparing to drill for oil and gas, how do they propose to execute their plans, and who is monitoring this activity?

  • OPTION 2

    Safety technologies for energy development and oil spill clean-up

    What provisions have been put in place by industry and governments to prevent accidents and to address spills when they happen in this challenging environment?

  • OPTION 3

    Conservation needs for marine mammals, wildlife, and ecosystems

    Do we need to delineate protected areas in the Arctic? What other measures do we need to take to minimize the impact on ecosystems as human activity escalates?

  • OPTION 4

    Observation-based knowledge of indigenous populations

    The communities that have existed for thousands of years have knowledge and traditions that not only demand preservation but also can inform future generations about the region. What are their perspectives, and are they being adequately included in the conversation?

  • OPTION 5

    National and international governance

    What international boundaries are in place in the Arctic, and what remains to be determined regarding nations’ rights and responsibilities?

  • OPTION 6

    Emergency response capability

    How do we ensure that we have the equipment, infrastructure, and experienced responders that will be needed when mishaps occur, particularly in harsh weather?

Joe Pilot
Joe Pilot

 I have been involved with extensive environmental research in the Arctic, focusing on Bowhead whales primarily.  I was also at Deepwater Horizon immediately after, and then onward.  The gulf is fine now and the arctic is a vast wasteland sparsely populated even by animals.  I've seen the drilling activities in their entirety - yes, all of it.  No harm is to be seen anywhere.  Have you all been eyewitnesses in these places?  I have.  Environmentalism has mutated into a mania that has departed from reality and yet has paradoxically (and cleverly) cloaked itself in science, but not complete science.  Galileo insisted dogmatically that the universe was heliocentric.  Turns out it isn't heliocentric, but to this day the so-called scientific still refer to him in their defense against naysayers and religious types with different/expanded perspectives.  Beware those with scientific claims.  More importantly, go see the arctic for yourself!  There is little there to harm and the Eskimos are working both sides of the debate for profit.

We are not doomed.  The arctic is not a utopia--it is a vast region that will live on as it has without regard to energy exploitation.  I ask again...have you been there?

Go see for yourself.

Sean Baumann
Sean Baumann

This is mind-numbing... we are at the foot of the modern ecological apocalypse for our species and most life on earth and the only thing people are concerned about are new shipping routes... and really, seriously, the shipping industry's 85 or so biggest ships contribute more pollution into our atmosphere than every car on earth combined.

Vicki Sherwood
Vicki Sherwood

The Arctic and Antarctic are very fragile ecosystems. Mining and oil drilling in these areas should be forbidden until all other sources are exhausted. Hopefully by then, much cleaner and safer methods of extraction will be available. In the interim, mining and oil companies should have to spend a proportion of their profits cleaning up the mess they have already made and on research into clean, green energy sources. In Europe the manufacturing of windmills and solar panels has become a big, profitable industry. Stop buying inferior-quality, accident-prone, made-in-China products and invest in domestic manufacturing of high-quality clean-energy wind turbines and solar cells. 

Penny Ramsden
Penny Ramsden

The Arctic and Antarctic are key ecosystems affecting the stability of the rest of the planet. Our weather and climate systems and also our ecosystems are connected and depend on these areas, Messing with these is an extremely dangerous thing to do. We need to stop using fossil fuels now and generate clean and green sources of energy.  Let us just relate to these areas through research of Nature.


We, who call ourselves to be civilized Nations should get busy with all our scientific intelligence to REPLACE oil- based energy consume habits, instead of taking risk to severely damage arctic regions with technical adventures.

sam russo
sam russo

i’m totally disgusted.
when will the people stand up for a clean energy source that is here now, and has been for a long time.
get real.
stop gas companies
stop lobbyists
stop polluting in the name of profit

Shangey g
Shangey g

I’m a little disgusted national geographic is ‘normalizing’ development of the arctic.
I really liked the animation of ice coverage shrinking over the decades.
Unfortunately most concern is lost when the profit potential from fossil fuels infects logic.

A Legitimately Concerned Citizen
A Legitimately Concerned Citizen

This entire page is absurd. The point of view, that extracting oil and gas, is the most important thing, and that this is a positive and exciting time for the Arctic region is terrible.

The melting of ice in the Arctic spells certain doom for communities across the globe, as well as the habitats of arctic animals. But here Shell is happily celebrating it. This is disgusting.

Not to mention, the simple fact that drilling in the Arctic is far too dangerous and unpredictable. I don’t want to see what the rest of this planet looks like if the Arctic weather is ever actually calm enough for sea-based large scale hydrocarbon drilling.

Shame on you Shell.


Remember the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico? Oil companies cannot prevent leaks and spills in the Gulf of Mexico. Imagine the mess they will make if allowed to drill in the Arctic Ocean with severe storms and icebergs. To stop climate change, invest in energy conservation and non-fossil fuels, especially renewable energy.

debbie thorn
debbie thorn

lets face it . no business is safety foolproof. we have no business using any resources in that area and no machinery works perfectly for very long an oil spill will be a given, and its already damaged enough & who is going to regulate the rush of gold diggers once we let them in.?I’d say only 1 out of 10 businesses really care about the environment as it is if that. Money seems to be all that matters to most countries and businesses.

debbie thorn
debbie thorn

we 4 sure dont want China and their unregulated business drilling for resources up there they are already killing as many whales as possible. a permanent business there will up the dead whale count for sure

Edwin Ye
Edwin Ye

The industrial plans and development can be seen as the root of polluting and damaging the original arctic area and its resource.

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