the CHALLENGE and OPPORTUNITY of PRESERVING ARCTIC OCEAN WILDERNESSBruce Coetzee / International Journal of WildernessPhotographs: wall.alphacoders.comOur natural world is in peril, and we, as the custodians of our planet, have a duty to take measures to amend the continued degradation of Mother Earth. Several essential developments, particularly those in the technological sectors, have aided in unifying and globalising this statement. With instantaneous access to information worldwide enabled by this new global village, it has become increasingly evident that many alarm bells cued in the later part of our century that highlighted the significant repercussions of climate change and ecological destruction have been ignored.
Although some initiatives and conservation actions have resulted in positive change, many questions raised in the past remain unanswered.
This segment aims to examine some of the most pertinent environmental issues of the last few decades and address a simple yet profound question. Have we done enough to change the course of our planet's environmental destruction?

In light of humankind's expedient awakening in the last 50 years, much has changed. The concerns presented in the late 80s and 90s, with the immense effect global warming could have on climate change, have been intensified as we now experience first-hand the warning signs of a fragile, over-expended natural system. Until recently, the Arctic and its ocean wilderness remained a relatively untouched marvel of our planet, primarily due to its remoteness and adverse environmental factors. This has all changed in the last few decades and what was once a spectacular wonder, which supported unique plant and ocean life, is now more than ever in dire need of humanity's focus and attention.
When we evaluate any progressive actions that have practically and effectively solved any real problems or helped to slow down the magnitude of destruction, the need to find viable solutions to amend some of the elements precipitating a decline in Arctic Ocean bio-systems has unfortunately not been a deep concern for humans. The following article provides a foundational look at essential issues raised amidst the environmental conservation awakening of yesteryear. It sets a reference for just how far we have come, preserving a unique part of our world.
The Challenge and Opportunity of Preserving Arctic Ocean Wilderness
Soul of the Wilderness
June 2017 | Volume 23, Number 1
For a long time, the idea of wilderness in ocean and coastal waters has been talked about, evaluated, recommended, and criticized, but little progress is being made toward some tangible action that either embraces the idea or rejects it. While we engage in this on-again, off-again debate, there is a place we can agree is, per- haps, “iconic wilderness” that remains unprotected, and its wilderness values and qualities threatened by encroaching human use and development. That place is the Arctic Ocean.

At the recent Arctic Circle Conference, held in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 2016, many warnings were given, and repeated often, about significant and consequential changes in the Arctic environment. There seems to be broad agreement that the environment in the Arctic is changing rapidly, estimated at perhaps two to three times faster than elsewhere in the world. The multiyear sea ice is receding, glaciers are melting away, and the lands adjacent to Arctic waters are becoming exposed for the first time since the end of the last ice age, some 12,000 years ago. Both the human and animal populations of the Arctic are being profoundly affected by climate change.
Populations of walrus, polar bears, and seals, which rely on the sea ice as important habitat, are declining in many places. Entire coastal ecosystems are being altered, perhaps irreversibly, by increasing water temperatures allowing the introduction of species never before seen in this region. The people of the Arctic, highly resilient though they may be, who rely on many of these populations for cultural subsistence are finding it more difficult to successfully sustain themselves in the face of this rapid and significant change. In the wake of these social, economic, cultural, and ecological changes, communities must find other ways to survive. The Arctic is no longer protected by its remoteness and harsh climate, offering, arguably, much needed economic development opportunities. These changes in the socioecological landscape of the Arctic coast make preserving this iconic wilderness much more difficult to effectively achieve.

Interestingly, what we also heard in Reykjavik was that we may have a window of opportunity to get ahead of the coming development. The changes are happening, but some of the commercial development opportunities may take longer than expected to become economical than use of other traditionally used navigation routes for many years – perhaps into the next before these polar routes can be routinely used. The Arctic does indeed contain relatively rich deposits of oil and gas, but their development may be slower than expected, until the prices recover sufficiently to make the investment in extracting these resources economically justifiable. Recent actions on part of the US and Canadian governments in reserving large portions of the Arctic Ocean from oil and gas exploration and development are also a factor in delaying this activity, but it is uncertain how long these decisions will remain in place, particularly when the price of oil and gas increases, as it inevitably will.

Cruise ship tourism in the Arctic is increasing, and a significant number of exploration cruise ships are being constructed to respond to the growing demand, but whether and how much this demand continues to increase will depend on the short-term viability of the trans-Arctic routes, and whether the growing tourism pressure makes the quality of the visits to these places diminish in attractiveness. This demand is likely fueled by the perception that the Arctic may soon no longer be the iconic wilderness we currently believe it to be – a kind of “extinction tourism” – and delaying these visits will ultimately be less gratifying. 
This readjustment of our collective sense of crisis with regard to what were thought to be imminent changes may off an opportunity to move forward with preserving at least some of what makes the Arctic wilderness “iconic.”
No form of statutory protection could possibly alter the trajectory of the changing climate. Yet delaying some directed action to preserve wilderness areas in the Arctic simply because we seem not to be able to agree on the details of what ocean wilderness is should not preclude taking the first steps toward preserving some of the more potentially outstanding examples of Arctic wilderness, both on the land and in the sea. Lancaster Sound, which is in the Canadian Arctic at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage, has been identified as one of the most critically important marine ecosystems in the Arctic. It is an example of a place more than deserving of wilderness preservation yet has been in review for protection as a National Marine Conservation Area by the Canadian government for nearly three decades. Right now, the wilderness in the Arctic is only preserved as a legacy of its previous remoteness and inaccessibility. While this situation will persist for a while, it most assuredly will not last for much longer. This recalibration of the timelines for Arctic economic development provides not only a bit of “breathing room” to start what will almost certainly be a long and difficult process to establish wilderness protection areas, it also offers the opportunity to achieve this goal in full and transparent collaboration with the people who live there. Anyone who has worked in the Arctic knows full well that the sorts of collaborative engagement processes essential for establishing protected areas relied on in most other places in the world present considerable population density is low, spread out across a very large area, and quite distant from the offices of the government agencies that will oversee and coordinate these processes.

The investment of time and money necessary to achieve effective engagement and collaboration with the people of the Arctic in such an enterprise will be considerable. This is yet another reason why time is of the essence, and any notion of breathing room needs to recognise and embrace this reality. Groups such as the Arctic Council have, since its inception, been engaged in collaborative planning for protection of places in the Arctic that are critical to preserve its biodiversity, ecological integrity, and cultural value, yet little more has been accomplished than the creation of a number of plans that have not even begun to be implemented. While the situation may not be the “crisis” it might have been originally thought to be, further delaying directed preservation efforts because the potential threats seem to be a little further off is shortsighted. 
The challenges to successfully achieving even some limited wilderness preservation in the Arctic are still quite real and will not be overcome easily or quickly.
Without question, there will be many reasons put forward that can delay, yet again, some affirmative action to preserve the widely valued wilderness in the waters of the Arctic. A lack of full consensus on what we mean by “ocean wilderness,” the differing perception of “wilderness” by the Indigenous peoples of the North, the considerable cost and time required for engagement of the local communities in identifying, evaluating, and agreeing upon potential sites, and simply the deep polarisation of civil society over issues such as conservation, are all valid concerns. However, experience has shown that establishing any protected area when a tangible economic development proposal is on the table is the most challenging time to try to preserve it. If we are serious about preserving wilderness in the waters of the Arctic, this may be our last, best chance.
BRAD BARR has been a member of the visiting faculty at the University Center of the Westfjords in Isafjordur, Iceland, for the past 10 years, teaching courses on marine protected areas, preservation of underwater cultural heritage resources, and Arctic Ocean governance. He received his PhD from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and served in other government and academic positions throughout his 40-year career in protected areas science and management. His research has focused on ocean wilderness, marine protected areas, and place-based preservation of maritime heritage; email: brad.barr@

Whilst momentum has undoubtedly increased concerning safeguarding Arctic Ocean habitats in a pragmatic sense; there has been a significant change in governmental and public opinions that have in the past decade realised that the very survival of the indigenous cultures, the economy and land depend on maintaining a healthy ocean biosphere. Concerns that pinned the destructive effects of declining sea ice and the detrimental "knock-on effect" this could have on ocean temperatures are now at the forefront of conservation initiatives. Clean fuel projects that steer away from traditional fossil fuels, readily abundant in the Arctic Ocean, have seen a massive decline due to new legislative efforts but unfortunately have not halted this torrid industry.
In 2019, eight of the Arctic states contributed 21% to global CO2 emissions. While this may seem insignificant, marine species like Narwhals, Bowhead Whales and the long-lived Greenland shark have translated to food scarcity and population decline.
Many opportunities have arisen through engaging values associated with historical ideas that serve to provide long-term solutions, and some of these have seen incredible results! The WWF Atlantic Ocean Programme has a vision aimed at providing practical and sustainable avenues to people and the natural environment. The work advocating the importance of allowing nature an opportunity to recover, underwritten through initiatives like ArkNet, has exceedingly aided in helping this diverse ecosystem regain some strength.
The impact of shipping vessel traffic and resource capitalisation, like oil and gas rigs sounded in the early 1980s, has also seen a paradigm shift, attributed partly to international climate control strategies. While recognisable impacts have been seen, there is still much work to do!

Considering the past in planning for the future is paramount if humanity is to amend the damage done to the Arctic oceans. The effects that transpire through misinformation or sheer ignorance, regardless of warnings past climate activists have made, should serve as a sobering reminder that we are creatures imprisoned by habit, treating the symptoms of a global illness rather than exposing the problems!

Have we then made a noticeable difference in correcting some of the issues which laid heavy on the minds of past conservationists, or has the plight of our Arctic oceans seemingly declined into a situation where we should prepare for an inevitable end?
We believe there is indeed still hope, and it has, and still remains, a question of moral perception. Each individual on this planet has an obligation and responsibility to themselves, and Mother Nature, which goes far beyond environmental activism, draws from the past and utilises the work done by environmental pioneers.
It is time to heed the alarms triggered by historical evidence through driving efforts that preserve not only our Arctic oceans but will inevitably ensure the survival of our species that depends on this unique ecosystem for life!