© Global Warming Images/WWF

Safeguarding the great migrations to the Arctic in the face of climate change

16 October 2019

This article originally appeared in The Circle: On the move: Migration in the Arctic. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

At a cursory glance, the Arctic strikes many as a place of stark, lifeless beauty. But this unique biome is far from barren. From baleen whales and birds to belugas, walruses and polar bears, the Arctic is a haven for some of Earth’s most striking megafauna.

It is also a temporary home to some of the animal kingdom’s greatest migratory wayfarers. Many species journey to the Arctic annually to take advantage of the area’s surprising biological wealth, from the largest animal that has ever lived—the blue whale—to the delicate Arctic tern. In fact, more than 50 million seabirds migrate north each year to raise their young.

We know that climate change and other threats—such as pollution or ship-strikes—are making these migrations increasingly hazardous. But who is responsible for protecting animals when they move beyond the borders of countries and their national waters?

The United Nations Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) provides a framework designed to help nations agree on protections. For example, whales, dolphins and porpoises are susceptible to underwater noise—such as from ships’ motors, sonar and drilling operations—and can become entangled in fishing gear or harmed by other ocean debris. Recognizing this, member states that have signed the convention have agreed on global measures to reduce these hazards. But even so, complete safety is not possible because several Arctic states—whose waters the migrating cetaceans swim through—are not parties to the Convention.

Birds may seem to have total freedom to roam the remote Arctic safely, but even they face a myriad of threats, as two articles in this issue of The Circle explain. The CMS Agreement on the Conservation of African–Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) works closely with the Arctic Council’s biodiversity working group to protect migrating birds. By focusing on birds’ preferred flyways to and from the far North, CMS can target its assistance to the places along the way where birds overwinter, rest or refuel on their long migrations.

Of course, cetaceans and birds are not the only species in the Arctic facing threats. Polar bears, walruses and seals sunning themselves on ice floes may seem to be a million miles away from industrial pollution, but sadly, many pollutants that originate elsewhere in the world drift to and accumulate in the Arctic because of ocean and atmospheric currents. They can even accumulate in the bodies of these large, long-lived migrants. As a result, when polar bear cubs leave their dens for the first time, chances are they have already ingested significant levels of toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) from their mothers’ milk. In addition, as climate change intensifies, adult bears are finding that the ice they rely on for hunting is retreating further and further each year.

These problems are complex and cannot be solved by any one country, or even by one international entity. CMS is working with the UN Environment Programme and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to find ways to mitigate these risks. But to do this, we need the support of all nations—especially Arctic states.

The Arctic is intricately connected to—and connects—all of us, including through migratory wildlife. People around the world count on certain species returning each year, whether because they harvest the species for food or make a living from tourists who want to see them.

Given the multiple threats they now face, will these species keep coming back?

MELANIE VIRTUE is head of the Aquatic Species Team at the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species.