The Last Ice Area
What is the Last Ice Area?The Arctic is changing, and of the most noticeable changes is melting sea ice. A changing climate is shrinking the size and duration of summer sea ice, which is vital habitat for Arctic marine life and for maintaining Inuit way of life.
Scientific projections show that summer sea ice will last the longest above northern Canada and Greenland. Local Inuit elders called the region "Similijuaq," meaning “place of the big ice.” World Wildlife Fund Canada was the first to call it The Last Ice Area.
Together, we must safeguard this globally significant region that will be a last refuge for ice-dependent species as the world warms.
Various forms of life are connected to the sea ice, from algae to bowhead whales.
Ice is life
About a quarter of the world’s polar bears live in or near the Last Ice Area. Most of the world’s narwhals spend at least part of the year there, and it is home to the largest breeding colonies of thick-billed murres and millions of Little Auks.
There’s a lot of other life that depends on the ice that’s harder to see: algae that turn the underside of the ice into a kind of hanging garden, grazed by small shrimp-like creatures, and this drives the whole Arctic food web. The ice algae also feed life on the ocean floor when they fall. Some of the organisms found in the ice prefer certain sorts of ice, the multi-year ice that may eventually only be found in the Last Ice Area.
This sea-ice associated life is important to local Inuit communities, and is also of global importance.
A recent Arctic Council report (SWIPA, 2017) concluded that even with effective action on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, the sea ice will shrink in terms of both the area it covers in the summertime, and in terms of how long it lasts in the wintertime. As the sea ice disappears, the Last Ice Area will continue to provide a suitable home for ice-associated life and the people who depend upon these living resources.
Limiting climate change is the most important thing we can do for ice-associated life, but we can also take action locally. We can avoid additional threats from activities such as oil and gas exploration, commercial fishing, tourism and shipping.
Human activities must be managed to protect the Last Ice Area’s special ecosystem’s habitats, species and cultural importance. WWF-Canada is committed to supporting the development a marine spatial plan, one which involves using ecosystem-based management as a foundation. This form of management takes into account the entire ecosystem rather than focusing on individual projects, activities, or species. Marine spatial planning is not about turning the entire area into a park or protected area. Instead, a plan would help prevent or diminish harmful human activities to ensure that sea-dependent wildlife, and the people who depend on that wildlife, can be resilient in the face of change. WWF believes that the people who live closest to the Last Ice Area should lead the development and implementation of such a plan.
What WWF-Canada is doing
Inuit in Canada and Greenland are looking at the future management of an important feature in the region: the North Water polynya which is called the Pikialasorsuaq in Greenlandic. A polynya is an area of water that is naturally ice-free in the winter due to wind and water currents. The North Water polynya is the largest in the northern hemisphere, critical to the well-being of many of the birds and animals in the region. It depends on thick ice forming to the north to keep it clear of drifting pack ice.
The region’s wildlife needs sea ice, but also requires some areas of open water like this one to survive the winter.
WWF-Canada supports the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which set up the Pikialasorsuaq Commission and travelled to communities in Canada and Greenland to listen to what people had to say about the polynya and its future management. The Commission recently released a report that recommended the polynya be declared a protected area under an Inuit-led management scheme. It is important that governments, communities and organizations in and around the Last Ice Area continue to focus on this globally significant region, which may one day provide refuge for sea-ice-associated life.
We are putting scientists in the field to gather knowledge and make an attainable plan for the future, so that life in the Arctic can continue to thrive – but to fund this work, we need your help.