Polar challenge: as the sea ice melts, can countries come together to protect the Arctic Ocean?

As disappearing ice presents new threats, from shipping to mining, explorer Pen Hadow is among those calling for the entire region to be given special status – yet others argue there are better ways to protect this fragile ecosystem

When the Arctic explorer Pen Hadow had to start swimming from ice floe to ice floe, rather than walking, he experienced for himself what scientists and Indigenous peoples of the north have long known: the floating sea ice, which used to reliably cover the Arctic Ocean for most of the year, is disappearing.

For Hadow – who has crisscrossed that ocean on skis, both accompanied and solo – the vanishing ice wasn’t just something that made his travels difficult. He knew that the Arctic ice is home to whole ecosystems above and below the water, protecting marine life from the worst impacts of humanity, pollution and the climate crisis. “The sea ice created a natural barrier,” says Hadow. “It’s undisturbed by vessels to this point.”

But for how long? The minimum extent of the ice in summer is dropping by about an eighth every decade. In June, scientists reported it is already too late to save the summer ice, foreshadowing a completely open Arctic Ocean for the first time since humans made the first stone tools 2.6m years ago.

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Arctic, energy, lands