This week, as the effects of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill still linger, the Obama administration released its new five year offshore oil exploration plan that could open up sensitive areas of the U.S. Arctic Ocean to drilling.
Unlike the Gulf, the proposed drilling sites in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas are in some of the most remote areas on Earth. There is no permanent Coast Guard presence. Simply getting equipment and trained personnel to an Arctic spill would be difficult, given the region's lack of major airports, ports and roads. Shifting sea ice, sub-zero temperatures, extended periods of fog and frequent storms with hurricane-force winds could shut down spill response altogether.
The stakes are high. Even a moderate oil spill could devastate the fragile food webs that support walrus, polar bears, bowhead whales and other marine mammals found nowhere else in the United States.
For the indigenous communities along the U.S. Arctic Ocean, marine mammals and fish make up as much as 60 percent of their diet. As this Pew Environment Group video shows, the ocean does more than feed their bodies; it is the heart and soul of their culture.
"Our ocean identifies who we are. It sustains us with food, medicine, clothing," says Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Siikauraq Whiting. “This is our Costco, our Sam’s Club. This is our grocery store.”
The Gulf of Mexico catastrophe showed Americans the consequences of lax oversight and inadequate response capacity, even in temperate waters near population centers. It's no wonder that America’s Arctic communities worry about what an oil spill would do to the ocean they call their garden.