Hundreds of climate scientists are imploring President Barack Obama to block offshore drilling in Arctic waters, writing in an open letter published Wednesday that "No new oil and gas leasing or exploration should be allowed in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the foreseeable future."
As average global temperatures rise month after month, putting 2016 on track to be the hottest year in recorded history, and Arctic ice melts at a rapidly increasing pace, 338 scientists from 13 countries urged the president to rule out oil and gas exploration in the area's federal waters, and include protections in the administration's current five-year leasing proposal—which protects some federal waters in the Atlantic but leaves the Chukchi and Beaufort seas open to drilling.
"The Arctic is home to vibrant communities of Indigenous peoples, provides vital marine habitats for iconic wildlife such as beluga whales, walruses, and ice seals found nowhere else in the United States, and plays a critical role in global climate systems," the letter (pdf) states. "Certain offshore areas—often those with durable physical or oceanographic attributes—make critically important contributions to ecosystem functioning and subsistence."
Jane Lubchenco, who headed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) during Obama's first term, said in a statement that she has "witnessed some of the unprecedented changes underway in the Arctic. Conserving important marine areas is an essential step in sustaining the region's resilience."
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The letter, organized by Pew Charitable Trusts, also urged Obama to consult with native Alaskan groups on any other developments in the Arctic and expand protections for areas that are vital to fishing and hunting among native communities.
The dangers and costs of Arctic drilling have dimmed the prospects of some energy firms. Royal Dutch Shell and the Spanish company Repsol both recently announced they would end their exploratory projects in the Chukchi Sea—in Repsol's case, that means dropping 85 total leases between 2016 and 2017—although Shell indicated it would continue searching in the Beaufort Sea.
"As scientists and natural resource managers, we support additional steps to protect vital habitats in the Arctic Ocean," the letter continues. "More action is needed to ensure the resilience of the Arctic marine ecosystem and sustain the people who use its living resources to thrive."