Smithsonian: Arctic Unguarded – Melting Ice Opens Way for Invaders

InsightaaS: The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) is dedicated to “research on linkages of land and water ecosystems in the coastal zone and provides society with knowledge to meet critical environmental challenges in the 21st century.” SERC operates a major facility on the Chesapeake Bay, and is also active in other coastal regions.

In this piece, SERC focuses on the Arctic, and what new shipping lanes – including the long-sought Northwest Passage, which saw its first sea voyage in September, 2013 – mean for the potential migration of invasive species between the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Traffic along the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route (through Russia and Norway) is expected to rise by as much as 20% per year for the next 25 years, leaving “both [the Atlantic and Pacific] coasts and Arctic waters vulnerable to a large wave of invasive species–a problem the Arctic has largely avoided until now.”  The piece ends with a quote that observes, “The good news is that the Arctic ecosystem is still relatively intact and has had low exposure to invasions until now…Now is the time to advance effective management options that prevent a boom in invasions and minimize their ecological, economic and health impacts.”

For the first time in roughly 2 million years, melting Arctic sea ice is connecting the north Pacific and north Atlantic oceans. The new sea routes leave both coasts and Arctic waters vulnerable to a large wave of invasive species–a problem the Arctic has largely avoided until now.

Two shipping passages have opened in the Arctic: the Northwest Passage through Canada, and the Northern Sea Route, a 3000-mile stretch along the coasts of Russia and Norway connecting the Barents and Bering seas. While opportunities for tapping Arctic natural resources and interoceanic trade are high, commercial ships often unwittingly carry invasive species. Organisms from previous ports can cling to the undersides of their hulls or be pumped in the enormous tanks of ballast water inside their hulls. Now that climate change has given ships a new, shorter way to cross between oceans, the risks of new invasions are escalating.

“Trans-Arctic shipping is a game changer that will play out on a global scale,” said Whitman Miller of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center…

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