Straight to content

Arctic wetlands face increasing risks

Published on:
  • Private sector performance

Wetlands International expresses its extreme concern today over the continued and increasing exploration for and production of oil and gas in the Arctic. Activities like these could jeopardise Arctic marine and coastal wetlands, which are critical for nature and people as well as the global climate.

The Arctic region is one of the world’s most fragile and pristine areas. Wetlands make up 60% of the land area of the Arctic and are critical for maintaining the global climate, for supporting local people as well as a great diversity of migratory species ranging around the world. Developments associated with the oil and gas industry have already caused significant damage to these fragile wetlands in several Arctic areas. The drilling for oil in remote and extreme conditions, brings increased levels of risk to the integrity of the environment and consequently livelihoods, both offshore and onshore.  The full nature and extent of these risks is still poorly understood, but the total impact could be catastrophic.  Impacts in the Arctic wetlands could be felt far away, as dependencies of migratory bird and marine mammal species connect the Arctic to Africa, South America and southern Pacific, for example.

Wetlands International therefore finds the risk unacceptable. “In our view the Arctic is simply too valuable to nature and humanity and the risks from drilling are just too high”, says Jane Madgwick, CEO of Wetlands International.   As long as internationally agreed standards for oil and gas operations do not exist, as long as acceptable levels of risk are not defined for the sector, and as long as adequate management measures to address these risks can’t  be guaranteed, Wetlands International opposes exploration and oil production in the Arctic. Wetlands International further supports an immediate moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the most sensitive areas of the Arctic, including all categories of protected areas and areas of international importance. An overview of areas that qualify to be included in such moratorium does not exist for the Arctic. Wetlands International is currently working to identify and map these areas, on-shore and along coasts.

For additional information, please see our position statement on Arctic oil and gas development.

Additional Notes

Our involvement in Arctic wetlands

As a science-based organisation with leading expertise on wetlands, we work to enhance the knowledge and understanding of Arctic wetlands, their values and sensitivities. The current science-base on Arctic wetlands is inadequate for effective land use planning, wetlands conservation and wise use, and ensuring the most important values are not jeopardised. It is clear that better practices and standards are needed in order to minimise impacts on the Arctic environment and the traditional lifestyles of indigenous peoples.

The decision to license oil and gas operations is made by the governments of Arctic countries. These developments are already been taking place in quite a few places around the whole of the Arctic, and plans for further developments are on the charts. It is outside of the sphere of influence of Wetlands International to stop these developments. These activities and plans have  a cumulative negative impact on wetlands and their values. Realistically, where Wetlands International can have influence is help to avoid activities in the most sensitive Arctic areas altogether, minimise the impacts where development occurs, and plan and design to achieve optimal restoration potential. To achieve this we collaborate directly with other NGOs, knowledge institutes, industry, governments and international conventions and policy frameworks.

With a highly qualified team of wetland experts including a leading Russian peat and Arctic expert, and with access to additional expertise in an extensive international network of collaborators, we are uniquely positioned to advise and provide guidance to our partners.

Collaboration with Shell

Since 2008 Wetlands International and Shell are engaged in a Collaborative Agreement.  The Overall Collaboration Objectives are:

  1. To enhance the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands for biodiversity and people in the operations of Shell and its Affiliates
  2. To strengthen Wetlands International’s capacity for engaging with business and for leadership in wetland conservation and wise use.
  3. To substantively contribute to sustainable development.

The Arctic can be considered one ‘megawetland’. In terms of wetlands it is both of enormous local and global value for biodiversity, people and climate regulation. The existing and upcoming threats to wetlands in the Arctic are reason for Wetlands International to engage with the oil and gas sector.

As a first step of working with Shell on the Arctic we created a classification of the diversity of wetlands and their vulnerabilities. We also developed an ecosystem based baseline methodology and a way to express sensitivities.

We are currently engaged in two Arctic projects with Shell.  These projects aim to improve the knowledge base on Arctic wetlands by identifying some of the most critical areas to avoid damage to. The outputs of these science-based projects will be independently peer-reviewed and made available to all interested parties.

  • Arctic critical habitat. We work to identify critical habitat for several species of waterbirds. We will map wetland areas that are key to the survival of species, ecosystems and evolutionary processes, so that the most valuable and sensitive areas are avoided.
  • Arctic oil spill sensitivity. We work to describe the sensitivity of different types of Arctic wetland coasts for oil spills. We will provide information on where to avoid spills at all costs and how to prioritise action in case of a spill.

Working with Shell, it is our joint intent to contribute to raising performance standards in the energy sector and its supply chain, with respect to the conservation and wise use of wetlands.

Wetlands International and Shell have an ongoing dialogue about their different views on drilling in the Arctic.

The importance of Arctic Wetlands

The Arctic covers roughly 6% of the Earth’s surface, more than 21 million km2, and extends into eight countries. Wetlands make up 60% of the total Arctic land mass and are therefore are the predominant ecosystem. Arctic wetlands provide a wide range of ecosystem services such as maintenance of permafrost, hydrology and water quality. Arctic wetlands store huge amounts of carbon and therefore help stabilise the global carbon balance. Arctic developments, like roads, pipelines and other surface disturbance cause hydrological disruptions (local drying out or inundation) and this is already resulting in increased GHG emissions. Arctic wetlands have the highest biological productivity of any wetlands ecosystem.  Marine and coastal wetlands are critical to the lifecycle of many populations of migrating birds, fish, marine mammals, as well as the livelihoods of many indigenous cultures. For some migratory species Arctic wetlands provide globally important breeding areas. Biodiversity loss in the Arctic has global impacts through migratory connections such as flyways, river basins and marine-migration systems.

Recent changes and loss of sea ice cover, melting glaciers, melting of permafrost with development of sink holes, as well as changes to the delicate vegetation and distribution patterns of bird and mammal species add to the growing evidence base of a rapidly changing Arctic environment.

Urgent action is needed to ensure that these changes can be halted to prevent global climate change and negative impacts to people and biodiversity worldwide.

For more information, contact:

Ward Hagemeijer
Head Business and Ecosystems
[email protected]
+31 6 46206629