June 24, 2011
Escalating oil prices and diminishing supplies around the world are focusing more attention than ever on the vast petroleum reserves under the Arctic seabed, and in the relatively pristine shoreline areas of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.The Obama administration is moving to speed up drilling where possible, but the nagging problem with a wholesale move into the Arctic is how much we don’t know about the remote, fragile region. How much more drilling can safely be accommodated?
Can polar bears survive the twin threats of shrinking sea ice and greater ship traffic? What about fish stocks and an acidifying ocean? Bowhead whales might be able to migrate around new oil platforms, but will they be stressed out by drilling noise? And what if their food supplies are shrinking as well?
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in March 2010 ordered up a report on what we don’t know, and need to know, about what is happening to the Arctic environment. This week, the answer finally arrived, in the form of a long-awaited new report from the U.S. Geological Survey on what science gaps need to be filled to safely carry on the march into one of the coldest and least-understood places on the planet.