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As the Biden administration moves to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas drilling, advocates are also urging officials to tighten restrictions on Arctic shipping because the number of ships and distance traveled in the Arctic has grown dramatically. A new report by the Arctic Council found that underwater noise pollution from shipping in parts of the Arctic ocean doubled in just six years, compared to 30 to 40 years in other regions. This noise pollution disrupts fish and whale populations that many coastal and Indigenous communities rely on, explained Dr. Melanie Lancaster, the species lead for the WWF Arctic Program.
Why This Matters: The Arctic is warming at rates two to three times faster than the rest of the world, creating ripple effects like changing ocean temperatures, storm patterns, and increased coastal permafrost erosion. Wildlife in the region is suffering greatly:
Protecting the Arctic from noise and other pollution will be crucial to reaching the goal of conserving 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 and meeting the nation’s Paris agreement commitments.
Experts say that the Arctic is a proverbial canary in the coal mine and protecting it from further warming is crucial to preventing catastrophic temperature rise. But the Arctic melting that allows for much greater shipping in the region is also concerning for marine wildlife. The Arctic Ocean’s cold temperatures and other shallow oceanographic conditions make it especially problematic when it comes to underwater noise because sound travels long distances in shallow water. As a result, the noise of shipping is concentrated within the swimming and diving ranges of whales, walrus, and other seals, and that is known to disrupt their behavior. As the Arctic Council report concludes regarding Arctic shipping: “Even small amounts of shipping can have a disproportionately large impact on the acoustic environment of wildlife compared to other oceans around the world.”
“Marine mammals rely on sound to find food and mates, navigate, avoid predators and take care of their young,” said Lancaster. “This report clearly shows that one of the planet’s last natural ‘sound sanctuaries’ for marine life is being inundated with human-caused underwater noise. There is an urgent need to turn down the volume of ship noise in the Arctic because these dramatic increases cannot be left unchecked.” Advocates say that voluntary speed reductions of 10% nearby critical habitats, improvements in quieter ship technology, and regulations from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will be vital to protecting Arctic ocean species. Already, the Biden administration has announced its intentions to tighten rules on lobster and crab catching gear to prevent the extinction of North Atlantic Right whales. The species has only 400 individuals left, and 20 whales die due to human activity each year.
According to the report, shipping is not the only underwater noise-producing activity in the Arctic region. There is also mineral extraction and exploration (through seismic surveys), and port construction. This growing cacophony in the water changes the underwater soundscape and negatively impacts marine ecosystems, as well as Indigenous and local ways of life.
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