Environmental Initiatives

Media Inquiries

If you are a journalist and would like additional information, please visit the Media Contacts page.

Media Contacts

Subscribe to News Feeds

Pew offers news delivered to your desktop via RSS feed. Subscribing is easy. To learn more or get started, follow the link below.

Subscribe to News Feeds

For The Record

When Pew’s work is questioned or criticized we respond through letters to the editor or op-eds.

Read Pew's Responses

Why Uncertainty Matters in Managing the Arctic Ecosystem

Why Uncertainty Matters in Managing the Arctic Ecosystem

Related Experts

  • Henry Huntington

    Henry Huntington

    Senior Officer, International Arctic

    Read bio

     

See all of our Experts

Author(s)

Henry Huntington

Author(s) Description

Science Director, Arctic Program,

When it comes to energy and other development in the remote and challenging U.S. Arctic, science can be a particularly useful guide for making decisions. Part of the scientific process, after all, is taking into account not only what we know, but also what we don’t know – and leaving a healthy margin for error.

If you are not sure how long it will take to get to the airport, for example, you leave extra time to be on the safe side. If you are not sure how many people will come to your party, you stock extra food and drink just in case.

Likewise, managing our environment requires dealing with varying levels of uncertainty. We can never know everything about an ecosystem or even a single species. Instead, we make estimates, assess our confidence in our knowledge, and ideally act with caution. Unfortunately, uncertainty can also be used as an argument to forge ahead rather than a reason to move wisely.

For instance, consider many of the fisheries around the world. In too many places, people have fished more, farther, and faster as fish stocks dwindle. Too often, catch limits have been set based on economic hopes rather than biological facts. The results in many regions are fewer fish, far-reaching ecosystem change, and the collapse of some fish populations.

But there are better ways to manage uncertainty. Fisheries in Alaska, for example, are based on scientific stock assessments that build in a margin of error. And fishermen here understand that long-term benefits may have short-term costs. In 1997 when salmon returns to southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay were low, managers—with the support of fishermen—curtailed the harvest, despite the resulting temporary economic hardship. As a result, enough salmon were able to spawn in the rivers of the region to allow stocks to rebound to healthy levels, supporting an important and sustainable resource.

This same logic needs to be applied to managing marine activities in the Arctic. Much of the discussion about oil and gas operations on Alaska’s outer continental shelf implies that we face an either/or decision. Either we develop the oil, or we protect the environment. This is a false dichotomy, built on the idea that offshore development is a choice between open-ended drilling and a lockout. These are the extremes on the spectrum of options facing us. But there are many points in between, offering the opportunity to explore and develop potential world-class reserves in ways that recognize uncertainty and allow for changes if the impacts are different than expected.

A prime example is how offshore lease sales are set up. Opening the entire Chukchi Sea, off Alaska’s north coast, dismisses the environmental risks entirely and ignores how much we do not know about how oil activities will affect the Arctic marine ecosystem. Opening smaller areas, however, allows oil and gas activity to move ahead, while reserving judgment about whether to open additional areas later.

Keeping large areas off the table now provides a buffer against uncertainty. If oil development proceeds with minimal impacts, more areas can be added to later lease sales. If impacts are larger than feared, only a small area will suffer those impacts while new techniques are researched or development decisions are reconsidered. It is far easier to open new areas than it is to buy leases back.

Keeping our uncertainty at the center of discussions about Arctic offshore development will help move us beyond all-or-nothing debates. Everyone uses petroleum products, and nobody wants an oil spill. While all activity involves some degree of risk, we must base decisions on a full acknowledgement of uncertainty. Only then will we be able to develop our resources and protect our environment.

This commentary originally appeared in Alaska Business Monthly.

 

Related News and Resources

  • The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Four Years Later

    • Other Resource
    • Apr 18, 2014
    On April 20, 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 people and setting into motion the largest oil spill in the nation’s history.

    More

  • New Report on Food Security in Northern Canada Cites Need to Protect Environment

    • Other Resource
    • Mar 27, 2014
    A report on food security in northern Canada, released today by the Council of Canadian Academies, highlights the importance of a healthy marine environment in sustaining traditional diets for Inuit and Aboriginal peoples, says Henry Huntington, The Pew Charitable Trusts' Arctic science director.

    More

  • Exxon Valdez Spill, 25 Years Later

    • Other Resource
    • Mar 21, 2014
    Just before midnight March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Alaska, causing the largest oil spill in U.S. history to that point. In the weeks that followed, a shocked world watched as the tanker spewed approximately 11 million gallons of oil into the formerly pristine and delicate Prince William Sound.

    More

X
Sign In

Member Sign In

Forgot Password?
Submit Not a Member? Join!
X

Forgot Password?

Send Password Not a Member? Join!
X

Change Password

X
(All Fields are required)
Send Message
Share this on: