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The Trump administration has announced that it will open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, which will allow oil and gas rights to be auctioned off in one of the country’s iconic places for wildlife by December 2021. The refuge has remained an oasis for wildlife thanks to protections put in place 60 years ago, and this represents yet another blow to lobbyists calling for the administration to reduce fossil fuel consumption in the face of the climate crisis.

Should we drill for oil and natural gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is estimated to sit above billions of barrels of oil, but the 19 million acre landscape is home to polar bears, waterfowl, migrating caribou and Arctic foxes. Overall, the refuge is home to over 270 species, including the world’s remaining Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears, 250 musk oxen and 300 000 snow geese, according to EcoWatch.

The Trump administration plans to open 1.6 million acres to drilling, moving forward with a 2017 Budget bill passed by a Republican-led congress. 

Under the 2017 law, the federal government must conduct two lease sales of 400 000 acres each by December 2024. The administration estimates that drilling could begin in roughly eight years and that the operations could last for about half a century. 

The Department of the Interior says that it has completed all the required reviews and intends to start selling leases to the land soon, expressing belief that the first lease sale could happen by the end of the year. It calls the leases “a new chapter in American energy independence.” 

According to research from thinktank Centers for American Progress, the drilling would emit more than 4.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to roughly 75% of the country’s annual emissions. 

The Trump administration has expanded oil and gas drilling, weakened gas mileage standards and rolled back methane emissions standards, among other measures in recent months. 

You might also like: America’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to Lift Methane Controls

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management concluded that establishing a network of well pads and pipelines for drilling would not pose a threat to the wildlife living in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. However, the plan calls for the construction of as many as four airstrips and major well pads, over 280km of roads, vertical supports for pipelines, a seawater treatment plant and a barge landing and storage site. 

Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska’s Wilderness League, says, “This is our nation’s last great wilderness. Nowhere else in the five-nation polar north do you have such abundant and diverse wildlife.”

Kolton adds that his organisation, as well as environmentalists will take the administration to court. “We will continue to fight this at every turn,” he says. “Any oil company that would seek to drill in the Arctic Refuge will face enormous reputational, legal and financial risks.”

Featured image by: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

A 2020 study has predicted that polar bear extinction will occur in the Arctic by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions remain on their current trajectory. Further, polar bears are likely to experience reproductive failure by 2040, reducing the number of offspring needed for population maintenance.

Will Polar Bears Go Extinct?

The study, published in Nature Climate Change, analyses how polar bears will be affected under two greenhouse gas emission scenarios. 13 of the world’s 19 polar bear subpopulations were examined, representing about 80% of the species’ total population.

The researchers found that under a ‘business as usual’ emissions scenario, polar bears will most likely only be found in the Queen Elizabeth Islands – an archipelago in Canada – by the end of the century. 

In a scenario of moderately mitigated emissions, it is still likely that polar bear populations in Alaska and Russia will experience reproductive failure by 2080

The researchers modelled polar bears’ energy use, in addition to body mass, to derive the threshold number of days they can persevere without food before adult and cub survival rates decline. Following this, they combined the thresholds with the projected number of future sea ice-free days to establish how and where populations will be affected in the Arctic.

You might also like: Sixth Mass Extinction of Wildlife Accelerating- Study

Peter Molnár, biologist and lead author of the study, says, “Even in the case where greenhouse gas emissions are mitigated, some subpopulations will go extinct by the end of the century, including those polar bears in the vulnerable, southernmost ice areas of western Hudson Bay, Davis Strait and southern Hudson Bay, but we would have substantially more populations persisting by the end of the century, even with reduced reproduction, compared with a business-as-usual emissions scenario.”  

The researchers noted that their study, at most, models a conservative ‘best-case-scenario’ projection such that the figures and impacts outlined are more lenient than the harsh realities of the extinction of polar bears. “The impacts we project are likely to occur more rapidly than the paper suggests,” Steven Amstrup, co-researcher of the study says. 

The IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group estimates that there are less than 26,000 polar bears left in the world, comprising 19 different subpopulations that inhabit places like Svalbard, Norway, Canada and Alaska. Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt for food, however, with sea ice melting as a result of global warming, polar bears are more likely to go hungry due to lack of hunting ground availability.

Molnár outlined that it was always inevitable polar bears would suffer under the pressures of the climate crisis, “but what was not fully clear was when we would expect major declines in the survival and reproduction of polar bears that could ultimately lead to their extirpation. We didn’t know whether that would happen early or later in this century.”

Polar bears rely on energy reserves built up over the winter hunting season to endure the lean summer months on land or time spent on ice with scarce prey around. Despite their innate ability to fast for long periods of time, their body condition, reproductive capacity and survival will suffer if they are starved for too long. 

Polar bear numbers have already dropped 25-50% in Alaska’s southern Beaufort Sea population, and 30% since 1987 in western Hudson Bay in Canada. 

Future of Polars Bears

Polar bear extinction can be curtailed and saved through habitat protection, unlike other species threatened by hunting or deforestation. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale will help deter some of the negative effects of the climate crisis, and will subsequently assist in maintaining sea ice integrity, preventing sea levels from rising and ensuring polar bears are able to feed and nourish themselves as well as their cubs. Moreover, future research should aim to build on the investigation of Molnár and colleagues to help further identify global-warming-induced projections, what is causing such projections and how they can be managed or mitigated.

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