Here’s Where the Arctic’s Wildlife Will Make Its Last Stand

Forecasters say the region’s sea ice will dwindle to a strip above Greenland and Canada. There, polar bears and others will fight to survive.

By Tim Folger
Published 13 Jan 2018, 12:38 GMT
Photograph by Brian Skerry
The full article appears in the January 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

We see evidence of the kill first: a shockingly broad spread of scarlet, probably the blood of a ringed seal, on snow-covered sea ice. Then the polar bear appears. She’s big, maybe 500 pounds, trailed by a single cub. They’ve just jumped into a lead—a long fissure of open water in the frozen sea. In seconds they’re out of the water again, running across the ice, spooked by the approach of our helicopter. Prolonged running can harm polar bears: Fat and fur insulate them so well they risk overheating. François Létourneau-Cloutier, our 33-year-old Québécois pilot, takes us higher, and the mother and cub slow to an amble.

After following them for several minutes, Létourneau-Cloutier sets the helicopter gently onto the ice a few hundred feet away and cuts the engine. The mother rises on her hind legs, assessing our 35-foot-long flying machine with the unruffled gaze of the Arctic’s top predator; the cub remains on all fours behind her. For a few timeless moments we savor the scene—bears against an otherwise empty immensity of snow and ice, countless shallow pools of meltwater reflecting a high summer sun ringed by faint halos of red and blue. Then, with a frenzied whine, the helicopter’s rotor blades break the spell, and we lift off, veering southwest toward our campsite on the northernmost tip of Baffin Island, Canada, about 700 miles north of Hudson Bay.

Within a few decades such vistas are unlikely to exist, at least not here, during summer. As the planet heats up, the summer sea ice and all the superbly adapted life it supports—the bears, the seals, the walruses, the whales, the Arctic cod, the crustaceans, the ice algae—may well vanish around Baffin. As we fly over the vast frozen expanse, it almost strains belief to think that we’re witnessing—and with the rest of humanity, helping to cause—its demise. In the 1980s satellite data showed that Arctic sea ice extended on average across nearly three million square miles at the end of summer. Since then more than a million square miles has been lost—an area roughly the size of Alaska, Texas, and California combined. (Read 7 Species Hit Hard by Climate Change—Including One That's Already Extinct.)

On a nearly ice-free August morning, walruses flop ashore on Devon Island, north of Baffin. Walruses dive as deep as 300 feet to feed on clams and other bottom dwellers. In between dives they rest on sea ice; dry land is a less convenient substitute.
Photograph by Florian Ledoux

Climate models suggest that by the 2050s, less than 200,000 square miles of perennial sea ice will remain. The good news, such as it is: What’s left will collect in a compact region, not here but farther north, above Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island. That shrunken redoubt will be the last stand for many of the Arctic’s wild things.

“The animals that depend on the edge of the sea ice for a living will be congregating there in the summer,” says marine ecologist Enric Sala, leader of the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas project. “It will be like one of those watering holes in Africa where everybody shows up.”

Sala has come to Baffin with divers and filmmakers to document the icy world that’s doomed here—and to make the case for preserving the “last ice” farther north. Since he started Pristine Seas a decade ago, the project has helped protect more than three million square miles of ocean. But preserving the remnants of Arctic ice, which will require the cooperation of Greenland and Canada, will be its most ambitious undertaking.

It’s also the most urgent. “The Arctic is changing faster than anything else,” Sala says, and as the ice goes away, shipping, fishing, and oil and gas development may intrude. If sea ice and its denizens are to be protected, it must happen before exploitation of Arctic resources becomes unstoppable. With the last-ice project, Sala says, “we’re looking 25 years ahead.”

You can read the full article in the January 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

A pod of beluga whales swims through Lancaster Sound north of Baffin Island. The whitest ones are adults that have already molted: Every summer belugas seek out shallows where they can rub off their old skin against gravel and sand.
Photograph by Paul Nicklen
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