Skip to main content

Photo Essay Frozen Treasure: Defending the Arctic

The Arctic is a thriving, diverse landscape filled with life. It is home to iconic species including seals, walruses, polar bears and bowhead whales. It is also home to vibrant Alaska Native communities which have depended for millennia on the ocean for their way of life.

Today, the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, putting tremendous strain on its wildlife and people. There is currently no offshore oil and gas development in America’s Arctic Ocean. And for the sake of our warming world and irreplaceable species, there should never be.

A ringed seal is on the lookout for polar bears as it surfaces.
Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Creative
A ringed seal is on the lookout for polar bears as it surfaces.

1 With our partners and allies, Earthjustice has fought to protect America's Arctic from oil and gas development for years. Oil spills know no boundaries, making it especially important to protect communities, wildlife and our planet from the risky drilling that is set to occur in this fragile ecosystem.

There is no effective way to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic’s icy waters. Operating in extreme conditions, oil drilling and exploration in America’s Arctic Ocean places whales, seals and countless other species in danger.

The Arctic Species Quiz

Ringed seals evolved from …
paleolithic dinosaurs
ancient amphibians
terrestrial mammals
Ringed seals are one of the smallest true seals (family Phocidae, also known as earless seals), a group of marine carnivores descended from terrestrial mammals.
An alpha male Arctic wolf bounds across the ice floes.
Jim Brandenburg / National Geographic Creative
An alpha male Arctic wolf bounds across the ice floes.

2 America’s Arctic Ocean is ground zero for climate change. Drilling in the Arctic will not only promote continued reliance on fossil fuels, but it will also release black carbon pollution directly onto Arctic ice, accelerating the melting of ice so many animals depend on for giving birth, raising their young, feeding, hunting, and avoiding predators. Arctic Ocean oil development would only undermine the Obama Administration’s efforts to address climate change during this crucial time of transitioning our country to a cleaner energy future.

The science is clear—drilling in the Arctic Ocean is incompatible with meeting our climate goals. Drilling for oil in the Arctic will only make it harder to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

Unable to find sea ice, approximately 35,000 walruses
Corey Accardo / NOAA
Unable to find sea ice, approximately 35,000 walruses "haul out" on the northwest coast of Alaska, near the Inupiat village of Point Lay, on Sept. 27, 2014.

3 The melting of Arctic sea ice is a powerful indicator of the rapid warming already occurring throughout the Arctic and is creating calamitous consequences for Chukchi Sea walruses. The species depends on sea ice to raise its young, feed, and avoid predators. With dwindling amounts of sea ice, walruses have been forced onto coastal areas in large numbers where food is scarce and conditions are dangerous.

In a previously unseen phenomenon, approximately 35,000 walruses crowded together on the U.S. Arctic coast in September 2014. That year, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service challenging a rule permitting oil companies like Shell Oil to harm Pacific walruses during Arctic Ocean oil drilling in crucial walrus feeding areas.

The Arctic Species Quiz

Walruses use their tusks for …
hunting and feeding
traction on slippery surfaces
nothing; the tusks are ornamental
Walrus tusks (canine teeth) can grow to three feet in length and are used to break through sea ice and hoist themselves out of the water. The tusks can also be used in defense against predators.
A young walrus returning from feeding on clams.
Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Creative
A young walrus returning from feeding on clams.

The Walruses of the Arctic

Individual walruses
were tagged with satellite transmitters tracking their movements, including to
the food-rich Hanna Shoal
.
Yellow blocks are
oil and gas development lease areas.
Movements of Pacific Walruses.
Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game

4 Most of our planet’s Pacific walrus use the Chukchi during the summer months. When forced onto coastal "haul out" areas, walruses must swim distances over 100 miles to reach Chukchi feeding grounds to find the clams and other bottom-dwelling species they need to survive. Walruses do not have the ability to swim indefinitely and are under great stress when forced to swim from coastal resting areas, without sea ice to rest on.

With dwindling sea ice, access to food sources in the Arctic is growing scarcer. And exploring for oil will bring deafening seismic blasts, which carry through the water for hundreds of miles, and other disturbances that can cause herds to move away from foraging areas and even stampede from coastal haul outs, in the process trampling and killing their young and smaller walruses.

A bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus.
Flip Nicklin / Minden Pictures
A bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus.

Five Years in the Lives of Bowhead Whales

Bowheads were tagged with satellite transmitters to study their habitat use and behavior throughout their range in the Arctic.
Movements of Bowhead Whales.
Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game

5 Endangered bowhead whales thrive in narrow shelf waters. They live near the edge of the moving ice pack, as it drops south in the winter and recedes north in the summer, for the bulk of the year, using their large skulls to break through thick ice when needed.

Shell’s planned drilling operations had been directly in the whales' summer and fall migration path to rich feeding grounds the whales need to survive. The government admits that it does not know all the areas important to bowheads but evidence suggests several are near potential drilling sites.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the historic worldwide abundance of bowhead whales prior to commercial exploitation was estimated at about 30,000–50,000, but was driven down to about 3,000 animals by the 1920s. The current population of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas stock of bowhead whales is now thought to number between 10,000 and 16,000 individuals.

Shell's drilling and ice-breaking could have harassed more than 1,000 bowheads, including sensitive mothers and calves. The major noise and activity from drilling, along with related explosive seismic testing, can drive whales away from areas of food and rest.

Erik Grafe in Denali National Park.
Photos provided by Erik Grafe
Erik Grafe in Denali National Park & Preserve.
Grafe, with his wife Hannah, at Denali's Triple Lakes Trail.
Grafe, with his wife Hannah, on the Triple Lakes Trail in Denali National Park & Preserve.

6 Earthjustice attorney and Alaska resident Erik Grafe has been at the forefront of protecting the Arctic’s iconic waters, wildlife and communities since 2007. In addition to the dangers of oil spills in key migration and feeding areas, he explains that drilling in the Arctic will accelerate climate change effects already wreaking havoc on wildlife and communities in the region and having effects far beyond the Arctic.

"As the international scientific community and President Obama recognize, we cannot develop the vast majority of already known oil reserves, let alone extreme Arctic Ocean oil, if we are to avoid the worst climate change consequences," says Grafe.

A male polar bear has its portrait taken by a camera trap.
Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Creative
A male polar bear has its portrait taken by a camera trap.

7 The Chukchi Sea’s oil and gas Lease Sale 193, which leased millions of acres of the pristine Sea’s outer continental shelf, has already been declared illegal twice by the courts—first in 2010 and then in 2014—thanks to Earthjustice litigation.

Still, the Department of the Interior re-considered and re-affirmed the sale in late March of 2015. The move opened the gate for risky oil drilling in America’s Arctic, home to one-tenth of the world’s polar bear population—and the entire U.S. population of the species.

On June 1, 2015, a coalition of 12 environmental and Alaska Native groups announced their intent to bring a new challenge to the controversial Bush-era Lease Sale. Earthjustice is representing Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Pacific Environment, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and World Wildlife Fund in the legal challenge.

The Arctic Species Quiz

The greatest predators bowhead whales face are …
polar bears
killer whales
disease-carrying sea mites
Bowhead whales have no known natural predators, except perhaps killer whales. The frequency of attacks by killer whales is assumed to be low. In one study, of 195 whales examined, only eight had been wounded by killer whales. But predation could increase if the refuge provided to bowhead whales by sea-ice cover continues to diminish as a result of climate change.
Drilling rigs, like the ones pictured here off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, would spell disaster in the Arctic where remoteness and ice contribute to difficulties cleaning up a spill. Putting them in the Arctic would be a disaster.
Anita Ritenour
Drilling rigs, like the ones pictured here off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, would spell disaster in the Arctic where remoteness and ice contribute to difficulties cleaning up a spill. Putting them in the Arctic would be a disaster.
Lease Sale 193 map.

8 Shell planned to drill in areas identified as important habitat for many mammals, including the region around Hanna Shoal, the extraordinarily biologically rich feeding area favored by walruses. Shell would have brought industrial devices such as aircraft, drilling rigs, ice-breakers and support vessels into this species-rich environment.

Walrus, whales, several types of ice-dependent seals, and waterfowl, seabirds, and shorebirds are all put directly in harm’s way by oil and gas drilling in the Chukchi Sea.

A seal and pup covered with oil, during the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989.
Natalie B. Fobes / National Geographic Creative
A seal and pup covered with oil, during the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989.

The Seals of The Arctic

Bearded
and
ringed
seals were tagged with satellite transmitters tracking their movements.
Yellow blocks are
oil and gas development lease areas.
Movements of Ice Seals.
Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game

9 Did you know there is a 75 percent chance of a major spill in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea if oil and gas leases are developed? The government does.

Still, our nation’s government continued to move toward allowing drilling.

And even without a spill, oil and gas drilling in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea will cause widespread harm and 100 percent chance of disruption to our climate.

Oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean will only further stress the region, and it is entirely incompatible with the urgent need to limit climate change.

The drilling unit Kulluk, part of Shell's 2012 attempt to drill in the Arctic Ocean, grounded on the shore of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska.
PA3 Jon Klingenberg / Coast Guard
The drilling unit Kulluk, part of Shell's 2012 attempt to drill in the Arctic Ocean, grounded on the shore of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, after many efforts by tug vessel crews and Coast Guard crews to move the vessel to safe harbor during a winter storm. The Kulluk was so badly damaged, it was eventually scrapped.

10 What failure looks like: Shell Oil was investigated and fined after multiple missteps and close calls during its efforts to drill in the Arctic Ocean in 2012. Government regulators severely criticized Shell Oil for failing to maintain effective oversight of its contractors.

Yet the Interior Department was still willing to give Shell the keys to our pristine waters.

  • A flotilla of hundreds of kayaktivists swarm the Polar Pioneer, one of Shell's Arctic drilling rigs, as it arrives in Elliot Bay at the Port of Seattle in May 2015.
    Joshua Trujillo / seattlepi.com
    Hundreds of "kayaktivists" swarm Shell Oil's drilling rig Polar Pioneer, as it arrives in Elliot Bay at the Port of Seattle on May 15, 2015.
  • Earthjustice Managing Attorney Patti Goldman of the Northwest regional office (left), with Chris Wilkes, executive director of client Puget Soundkeeper. Goldman is leading the Port of Seattle fight.
    Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
    Earthjustice Managing Attorney Patti Goldman of the Northwest regional office (left), with Chris Wilkes, executive director of Earthjustice client Puget Soundkeeper. Goldman is leading the Port of Seattle legal fight.
  • Seattle resident Jack Smith urges the Port of Seattle commissioners to reverse the lease agreement with Shell's Arctic drilling fleet, during a meeting in March 2014.
    Joe Nicholson for Earthjustice
    “Your child, my grandchild and the unborn grandchild of our grandchildren are going to live with what we do to this society,” said Seattle resident Jack Smith on March 24, 2015, during a Port commissioners meeting.
  • An estimated 1,000 people gathered along Seattle's waterfront #ShellNo rally in April 2015 in opposition to the Port of Seattle's lease to Shell's Arctic drilling fleet.
    Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
    A rally on April 26, 2015, at Seattle's waterfront in opposition to the Port's lease to Shell's Arctic drilling fleet drew hundreds of impassioned supporters.

11 Work to defend the Arctic is also underway in Washington State. Earthjustice is working to protect Seattle’s waters from a lease that would allow Shell’s Arctic drill ships to be housed at the city's port, in violation of the State Environmental Policy Act, its own long-range plans and the Shoreline Management Act. Earthjustice is representing Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council and Seattle Audubon Society in the legal fight to vacate the lease.

The Port of Seattle neglected to host public proceedings or an environmental review before authorizing its terminal’s use. Since the lease became known publicly, the groups and local residents have pressed hard on the port to rescind the lease, invest in sustainable jobs that reflect the community’s values, and block the drilling feet from calling Seattle home.

A flock of kittiwakes. The birds spend most of their time at sea, nesting in steep cliffs.
Ralph Lee Hopkins / National Geographic Creative
Kittiwakes are one of many migratory bird species found in the Arctic region. The birds spend most of their time at sea, nesting in steep cliffs.

12 On May 11, 2015, the Department of the Interior approved Shell’s drilling plans to begin oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea.

The summer months are vital to animal populations, as wildlife and migratory birds descend upon the Arctic to raise their young.

On June 2, an alliance of environmental and Alaska-based community groups, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit to challenge the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s approval of Shell’s oil exploration plan. Earthjustice is representing Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Pacific Environment, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society in the lawsuit.

The Arctic Species Quiz

Kittiwakes are named for …
a derivation of the Inuit word kaglulik
naturalists Sir Lawrence Kittredge and Douglas Wakefield
the noise they make
Kittee-wa-aaake! Kitte-wa-aaake! The birds are named for their shrill, rhythmic calls. They are usually silent in the winter. (Listen to their calls.)
  • The grandchildren of Earl Kingik, an Inupiat hunter and fisherman, learn how to set net to catch fish at Point Hope, Alaska.
    Photos by Earl Kingik, Point Hope, Alaska Wilderness League Liaison
    The grandchildren of Earl Kingik, an Inupiat hunter and fisherman, learn how to set net to catch fish at Point Hope, Alaska.
  • The 2015 Hands Across the Sand event in Anchorage brought together Alaska residents from all across the state, calling for protection of the oceans.
    Photos by Earl Kingik, Point Hope, Alaska Wilderness League Liaison
    In May, the Hands Across the Sand event in Anchorage brought together Alaska residents from all across the state, calling for protection of the oceans.

13 Alaska Native communities along the Chukchi Sea practice a subsistence way of life and have depended and thrived on the resources of this sea for their cultural and nutritional well-being for generations.

Today, they are on the frontlines of the consequences of climate change impacts and the risks of oil development.

Reaching for the aurora borealis in the Arctic Circle.
Mike Theiss / National Geographic Creative
Reaching for the aurora borealis in the Arctic Circle.

14 The Arctic is ground zero for climate change, and offshore drilling will only intensify the problem, placing additional stress on the Arctic’s animals which rely on its delicate ecosystem to survive. Let’s agree to safeguard the Arctic from the high risk of oil spills—and the planet from the irreversible damage that will arise from Arctic Ocean drilling.

We’re working to protect Seattle’s local waters, the Arctic Ocean, and our world from reckless actions that will wreak havoc on wildlife and our climate.

In September 2015, after seven years and a $7 billion dollar investment, Shell Oil Company announced it will cease its Arctic Ocean oil exploration campaign immediately—for now.

And in July 2016, Chukchi Sea finally became free of oil drilling for the foreseeable future. At the request of all the parties to the litigation, the Alaska federal district court dismissed the case regarding the Department of Interior’s Lease Sale 193 in recognition of dramatically changed circumstances. Oil companies have now abandoned all but one of the 487 offshore oil leases issued pursuant to the sale. The sole remaining lease belongs to Shell, where it drilled unsuccessfully in 2015. Shell has made clear it has no plans to explore in the Arctic Ocean in the foreseeable future.

"After eight years of successful legal challenges, the threat posed by this lease sale has passed,” said attorney Erik Grafe. “With oil companies abandoning this part of the Arctic Ocean, now is the time for action to ensure that this threat never returns."

Earthjustice is committed to continuing the fight to defend America's Arctic from all oil and gas development—will you join us?  

Special thanks to Earl Kingik, Point Hope, Alaska Wilderness League Liaison, for generously providing several photos.

By Chris Jordan-Bloch and Betsy Lopez-Wagner.
Updated July 20, 2016. First published June 19, 2015.

The Arctic Species Quiz

Bowhead whales primarily use all of the following to navigate, except …
voice
sight
smell
Bowheads are thought to use the reverberations of their calls off the undersides of ice floes to help them orient and navigate. And research has suggested that bowheads not only can smell underwater (for example, dense aggregations of krill to feed on)—but that their sense of smell is even better developed than humans.