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The Polar Bear Seas

Map | Factsheet

The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, the Arctic waters north of Alaska, are known as America's 'Polar Bear Seas' -- and for good reason. One of the most unique marine ecosystems in the world, these waters are home to the entire population of U.S. polar bears and have consequently been designated a critical habitat.

Here sea ice meets the northern edge of the continent and animals congregate in great numbers. In addition to polar bears, this bountiful zone is home to millions of migratory birds, beluga whales, and endangered bowhead whales. It has been called the "Arctic Ring of Life." But aggressive oil and gas industry interest in leasing these areas for exploration and development threatens the sustainability of this natural area and the livelihood of Alaska Native communities. Oil exploration and development pose serious risks to the Polar Bear Seas.

  • The intense noise of seismic exploration and drilling is pushing marine mammals farther out to sea. According to the National Academy of Sciences and reports from Inupiaq subsistence hunters, drilling has already changed the migratory patterns of endangered bowhead whales by as much as 30 miles. At that distance, the animals are not entering their critical habitat and community needs cannot be met.
  • Polar bears are especially vulnerable to oil spills because they search for food in the open lands and broken ice where spilled oil would pool.
  • Ringed seals would be displaced by the effects of full-scale, offshore exploration and development, and would also see increasing mortality and lower birth rates.
  • Pacific walrus and gray whales could be disturbed from important feeding areas in the Chukchi Sea.
  • Waterfowl flocks, including threatened Steller's and spectacled eiders, in marine waters, lagoons, sensitive coastal wetlands, and protected area shorelines could be devastated by spills.
  • Pristine shorelines like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Teshekpuk Lake would be harmed by offshore oil spills, air pollution, noise disturbance, and pressure to build facilities such as ports, refineries, staging areas, airports, and pipelines.
  • As onshore development spreads along Alaska's coast, there is an increased chance that offshore development will be linked up, posing even greater cumulative impacts to wildlife and people.
The offshore Arctic is suffering from the effects of climate change at unmatched rates. The polar bear's Arctic sea ice habitat is melting rapidly and experts believe the polar bear may be extinct by 2050. Any new industrial development in these waters would only add to the effects of climate change already causing stress for Arctic wildlife.

The Polar Bear Seas remain today some of the least understood; scientists still lack basic information about life in the Arctic Ocean making it impossible to gauge the impact of the risky, aggressive drilling proposed by Big Oil in these abundant, pristine waters.

What is known is that there is no proven way to clean up an oil spill in this unique area. The extreme, icy conditions of the Arctic coupled with the remoteness of the region and the lack of nearby oil spill response capacity make drilling too great a risk. Our last wild frontiers should be permanently protected, not opened to drilling that will only deepen our addiction to oil. We should be working to make our cars cleaner and more efficient and expand our transportation choices.

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