The Threat | WWF-Canada
	© / Doug Allan / WWF

The Threat

The ripple effect of a warming Arctic

Climate change is causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the global average, and it’s setting off a chain reaction in the north - in the water, on land, and on the ice.

It all starts with the melting sea ice. Why? Because sea ice is the key to life in the Arctic, and as it disappears, everything is changing. Polar bears are moving to new hunting grounds, leading to increased conflict with northern communities. Ice-covered areas where narwhals and other Arctic cetaceans once sought shelter from killer whales are disappearing, leaving them vulnerable to predation. Ships are taking routes that were never available to them before. New oil and gas reserves are being discovered and exploited as they become more accessible. Commercial fishing is happening on an ever larger scale. And industrial development projects are leading to habitat disruption and increased pollution.

While the repercussions of climate change are clearly being experienced in a serious way in the Arctic, the melting polar ice actually has ramifications for the whole planet. As the Arctic warms, it has less ability to help cool the planet. In that way, Arctic melting affects us all.
 / ©: Staffan Widstrand / WWF
Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus), female and cub on sea ice, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada, Arctic. © Staffan Widstrand / WWF

Sea ice

This vital piece of the Arctic ecosystem is melting
Covering an ever-shifting 25 million square kilometres of the Earth, sea ice is the foundation of Arctic life. It is at the base of a complex ecosystem made up of a wide range of species and local communities. 

As sea ice melts, the local communities and wildlife that depend on it must adapt. Indigenous people are travelling over thinner and more dangerous ice, while ice-dependent species such as polar bears, seals and whales are watching their habitats shrink, move and change. Some wildlife might be forced into new areas, many of which are already inhabited by other species or people, which in turn upset the balance of these ecosystems and communities. 

Learn more about sea ice and the complex role it plays. 


More traffic brings more challenges
In the coming decades ship traffic is expected to intensify in the Arctic, as the continuing shrinkage of Arctic summer sea ice opens new shipping routes, and demand grows for the exploitation of Arctic resources like energy and mining products.
 / ©: Staffan Widstrand / WWF
The Canadian icebreaker ship Louis St. Laurent, breaking through the sea ice of the Canada Basin, Beaufort Sea, Alaska, United States. © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada
More ship traffic brings more potentially harmful underwater noise and a greater risk of oil spills. And these risks are all the greater without a careful plan to minimize harm.

Learn about WWF’s work to promote the adoption of better shipping practices in the Arctic.

Oil and gas

The final frontier for petroleum development
The Arctic holds the world's largest remaining untapped gas reserves and some of its largest undeveloped oil reserves. A significant proportion of these reserves lie offshore, in the Arctic's shallow and biologically productive shelf seas.

Oil spills, whether from blowouts, pipeline leaks or shipping accidents, pose a tremendous risk to Arctic and marine ecosystems, and the increased underwater noise caused by offshore drilling can interfere with the sounds used by marine mammals for communication.

What would an oil spill in the Beaufort Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean, look like? Find out at

Learn more about WWF’s work to encourage responsible oil and gas development.
 / ©: National Geographic Stock/ James P. Blair / WWF
T An offshore drilling platform connected to land by a bridge, Beaufort Sea, Alaska, United States. © National Geographic Stock/ James P. Blair / WWF

What WWF is doing

	© François Pierrel / WWF
Things are changing fast in the Arctic, but with the right management strategies, we still have an opportunity to build a healthy future for this place and its cold-weather loving inhabitants.

Learn more

What you can do

Though you may never visit the Arctic, there are things each of us can do to protect it.

Learn more


	© (C)WWF
See the impact of retreating sea ice on Arctic species, shipping routes, and other human activities by exploring the WWF map.

	© Robert Van Waarden / WWF
Icebergs broken from glaciers drift south on the east Greenland current. Evidence of arctic warming is present in widespread melting of glaciers and sea ice. Melting of reflective snow and ice will reveal darker land and ocean, which will increase our planet's absorption of heat. This could lead to a feedback loop of further warming and melting.
© Robert Van Waarden / WWF

Hostile seas

The Arctic brings a unique set of challenges that can make shipping particularly dangerous:
  • Weather conditions make passage hazardous, and extreme cold can damage some equipment
  • Charts are not always current or reliable
  • Ice can place a heavy burden on a ship’s hull and propulsion system
  • Efficient, cost-effective methods to clean an oil spill in ice-filled waters are lacking
	© 2009 Florian Schulz / WWF-US
The migrating birds pass oil platforms that have been established along Gompertz Channel and Cook Inlet. Oil companies are now planning off-shore oil development in the Arctic Ocean, even through there is no know method of oil cleanup in an icy environment. Cook Inlet, Alaska
© 2009 Florian Schulz / WWF-US

Oil spills

An oil spill in Arctic waters would have devastating effects:
  • Oil toxins can be poisonous if ingested or absorbed
  • Oil contamination reduces the ability of ice-adapted species to stay warm, and could lead to hypothermia and death
  • An oil spill in arctic waters could also devastate the indigenous people who depend on the ocean for subsistence