The most symbolic animal in the fight for the Arctic right now in Norway is not the polar bear, but a small fish weighing just 100 grams: the polar cod. For environmental groups, this species threatened by climate change and highly vulnerable to oil spills shows like no other the risk to biodiversity posed by the current redefinition of the limits of the arctic ice edge o iskaten.
That iskaten It is the transition strip between the sea without ice and the sea covered by a frozen layer (solid and liquid). This border is continually changing. For this reason, until now, it was defined as the area with a 30% probability of having ice in April, according to the records of the period between 1967 and 1989. However, the retreat of the ice pack due to global warming has made rethink these limits, which has led to the conflict between the interests of the industry and the Norwegian government and protests from environmentalists and scientists. The dispute stems from the fact that, if the traditional definition continues to be used with current records, the border of the Arctic ice edge would move north, unprotecting an area vital to Arctic biodiversity.
The new line agreed by the Government with the opposition parties on June 8, is set in that area with a 15% probability of having ice in April, which modifies the open areas for oil exploitation. Instead, the scientists propose to draw the line where the ice appeared with a frequency of 0.5% in April, establishing the limit where there has been almost never ice during the last 30 years, which would shift the border south.
"All environmental agencies recommend setting the limit further south than what the Government has done," said Silje Ask Lundberg, head of the Nature Conservation Association, in an interview with the NTB agency. expressed by the Norwegian subsidiary of Greenpeace, for whom the Norwegian Executive has established an "arbitrary and unscientific border" to put the interests of the oil industry ahead of science. "The Government acts like Donald Trump, ignores scientific advice. It is dropping the Arctic and the climate. Now Parliament must take responsibility, when oil is rapidly becoming part of the past, "Frode Pleym, head of Greenpeace in Norway, told the newspaper. The Independent.
The arctic ice edge becomes the larder of the Barents Sea species in spring, thanks to the stabilization of the upper layer of water resulting from the melting of the ice by solar radiation. Algae blooms stimulate the growth of zooplankton, which in turn attracts fish, birds, and marine mammals. In this rich ecosystem, the polar cod is a key piece that supports the immediate chain that its predators form, from other cod, ivory gulls, ringed seals and narwhals. Now, a small amount of oil is enough to put this species out of the game.
“The polar cod is a key species in the Barents Sea. Their decline may have consequences for the entire ecosystem, "says Geir Huse, director of the Norwegian Institute for Marine Research, the Havforskningsinstitutt (HI), in a recent study on the vulnerability to global warming of 37 marine species in the North Sea, the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea.
Greta Thunberg's opposition
The Norwegian government's plans to redefine the ice border have raised opposition outside the Nordic country. In May, young Swede Greta Thunberg and 13 other young climate activists sent a letter to Prime Minister Solberg, recalling research by Oil Change International showing that pre-existing oil, gas and coal production sites contain enough fossil fuels to take away. the world well above the 1.5ºC global warming target.
According to the Norwegian Minister of Climate and Environment, Sveinung Rotevatn, to whom the letter was also addressed, the government proposal protects a larger maritime area than previous plans and sets the clearest limit for oil activities in the north of the that no other Executive has done before. “No other Arctic country has set a limit on oil activities. It is not difficult to understand that the environmental movement would have liked to have moved that border even further south, but I hope they can recognize this new plan as an important step in the right direction for the environment ”, Rotevatn told Norwegian public broadcaster NRK .
The Norwegian Oil and Gas Association, an industry lobby group, welcomes the Norwegian Government's proposal. "The change will provide a basis for continuing a strong business in the open areas," says Toril Inga Røe Utvik, on behalf of the state oil company Equinor.
Species vulnerable to oil
In the framework of the twenty-fifth round of the oil sector auction table, whose consultation period opened on August 26, the Norwegian Ministry of Oil and Energy intends to promote nine oil areas spread over the Barents Sea and the Sea of Norway, comprising 136 oil exploration blocks, an announcement that came six days after the new definition of the ice edge was approved in Parliament. “We need new discoveries to maintain employment and value creation in the future. I am hopeful that the opportunities will be attractive for companies and will contribute to increasing activity in the north ”, the Minister of Petroleum, Tina Bru, celebrated on June 24.
So far, 157 exploration wells have been drilled in the Barents Sea since its opening 40 years ago. “The Barents Sea is a geological puzzle that we are still working on. We believe that there is a lot of oil and gas, but geologists are still working to find out exactly where, how to find and extract it, ”acknowledges Stig-Morten Knutsen, Deputy Director of Exploration at the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate.
While the race for the discovery of black gold at the bottom of the Arctic continues, the HI researchers recall that the polar cod is one of the marine species most vulnerable to any oil spill, since exposure to a low dose translates in heart problems and in the fat metabolism of this tiny and valuable fish, the cornerstone of biodiversity on the edge of the Arctic ice.
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