Not long ago, bowhead whales in the Barents Sea, between the Norwegian and Russian Arctic, were thought to be extinct because of whaling activities. But scientists discovered that a small number of bowheads still live in a biologically rich area known as the marginal ice zone. Despite prices for crude oil dipping into historic lows, this group of critically endangered whales faces a new threat as the Norwegian parliament decides in the coming weeks whether to expand oil drilling into the globally significant marginal ice zone.
The marginal ice zone is the area where Arctic sea ice meets the open ocean. It stretches like a belt across the Arctic, thousands of kilometers long, as the extent of the ice expands and retreats throughout the year. This area has supported unique biodiversity such as phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish, polar bears, birds, seals and whales for millions of years. It is now under threat from climate change as the shrinking extent of the sea ice tempts oil producers with the potential of untapped reserves.
Life in the Arctic concentrates around the marginal ice zone and this “Arctic lifeline” could be the most conservation worthy marine ecosystem in the world regarding ecological importance, scale and sensitivity to human activity. The increased sunlight in the spring and summer months brings on a bloom of life from ice algae and phytoplankton which in turn feeds zooplankton. With the explosion of zooplankton, a large range of wild animal life gathers to feed. This vital yearly resurgence of plankton takes place precisely in the area where the sea-ice cover gradually changes from solid cover to the open sea — the marginal ice zone.
An oil spill could potentially cause a collapse of the entire food chain with impact on the wider Arctic region that depends on the biological productivity of the marginal ice zone. Seismic testing in oil exploration creates problems for whales which use sonar to navigate, communicate and feed. Until recently, the Arctic has been a natural sound sanctuary but increasing man-made noise from industrial activity poses yet another risk for marine life.