For thousands of years, perhaps even since the advent of the last ice age, a curious ritual has taken place along the banks of many rivers and bays in northern Canada. It is in these areas that, during the weeks of early winter, hundreds of polar bears congregate and wait patiently for the water to freeze before beginning their annual migration and making their way, across the ice, into the frozen wastelands that lie further north. The sea ice is indispensable to these creatures, the world's largest land predators, which use it as a floating platform to catch seals before heading back to their dens where they devour their prey.
But over the past decade or so, the bears have been forced to delay their journey longer than ever while they wait for the ice to freeze. This delay is having a highly adverse effect on their wellbe-ing, since they are spending less time on the ice and therefore have fewer opportunities of finding any food. As a result their health and fitness is being affected, their birth rates are falling and they are becoming less resilient to disease and to the demands of this harsh climate. Throughout the year they are also being forced to swim huge distances to find the ice cover they need and many are drowning in the process. So at one of their favourite venues, outside the tiny settlement at Churchill on Hudson Bay, where Pat Broe had made such a shrewd investment in 1997, their numbers are thought to have dropped by around one-quarter since the late 1980s.1
Throughout the Arctic region, the polar bear is already suffering badly from the general retreat of ice cover, and it is expected to continue doing so as the ice retreats; some meteorologists even predict that the region could have 'Florida summers in forty years'. This is why, over the last few years, the animal has become a symbol not of the Arctic region, but also of the impact of global warming and climate change upon it. Above all, the huge attention and publicity that has been focused on its tragic plight is a reminder that the international scramble to discover and exploit the Arctic's resources will inevitably inflict heavy environmental damage, creating enormous tension between governments, business, the general public, non-governmental organizations and pressure groups. In short, the fate of the Arctic environment is a major issue of international contention and controversy.
Part of the problem is simply that the Arctic is like any other wilderness, untouched and unspoilt by the hand of progress and civilization, but once lost, environmentalists point out, something unique and special can simply never be recovered. Most people feel a pang of sorrow and regret when they see a large, beautiful tree being cut down, or watch a green field being ploughed up and then covered with concrete, and if these feelings are familiar then you are likely to react in the same way when you read about the despoliation of the Arctic. This line of argument can't really be proven or demonstrated with facts and figures, but is instead something that someone either does feel or does not.
To some extent, the exploitation of the Arctic is more likely to stir the passions of environmentalists for the same reasons as any other wilderness area. This is not just because of its vast size, or because it is home to ancient and traditional ways of life, such as those of the Inuits and other indigenous people, and to various rare species of flora and fauna. Instead it is because some of the natural resources that can be found there, or can be moved through it, pose grave environmental risks: so if crude oil, for example, is lifted from the region and then transported away by tanker or pipeline, then the surrounding area is at risk of spillages that could inflict lethal and long-lasting damage. Other forms of economic exploitation can be just as bad: the excavation of resources such as copper, gold or coal often creates large, open pits that can ruin the natural beauty of a much wider area.
While these are dangers that confront any wilderness region where natural resources are being exploited or transported, the Arctic's unusually harsh climate and environment pose particular risks. For anyone who ventures into this region, whether it is an explorer, geologist, naturalist or businessman, has to contend with all manner of difficulties posed not so much by extremely low temperatures, but rather by the impact of climate change on its traditional landscape. For example, as waters continue to get warmer, icebergs are splintering and drifting through the seas, posing a real risk to any shipping or offshore installations that aren't braced up for them.
However, much of the controversy that surrounds the Arctic's environment is focused on the type of damage that any unspoilt region - rather than the Arctic in particular - suffers from when its resources are exploited: green activists point out that the extraction and transportation of natural resources inflicts devastating environmental damage on wildlife, habitats and ways of life.
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