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Executive Summary for March 4th

In this weekly roundup, we review and analyze the latest news and key developments in the Arctic, including a court decision on critical habitat for Alaska’s polar bears, carbon taxes opposed by leaders of Canada’s northern territories and new satellite data coverage of the Arctic Ocean.

Published on March 4, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Oceans Under the Eyes of Satellites

Earlier this week, the satellite Sentinel-3A captured its first image of the Earth – a shot of ice-covered Svalbard. The satellite will help monitor ocean ecosystems and make sense of the exchange of carbon that occurs between the atmosphere and the oceans.

Nature reports that scientists have found a way to speed up their calculation of Arctic ice thickness from data from European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite. The lag had been at least a month, but by using the new approach, shipping companies and scientists would be in a better position to calculate routes or forecast the fate of the Arctic sea ice.

Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is usually still growing at this time of year, but data compiled by the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, show that it continues to track well below average. The Washington Post has coverage of both the sea ice extent and the news that February was the warmest month in the satellite record – globally – with especially high temperatures felt across much of the Arctic.

In fact, the Guardian and many other outlets report that snow had to be trucked in for the Iditarod sled dog race this week. CBC News reports that lack of snow has also been a concern for the Arctic Winter Games, set to start in Nuuk, Greenland on March 6.

No Carbon Tax for Canada’s North?

Canada’s northern leaders say they want a role in shaping the country’s climate change policy.

In a joint statement issued on March 2, the leaders of Canada’s three northern territories said they are opposed to a carbon tax to fight climate change. They believe it would harm the quality of life of people living in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, reported the Nunatsiaq News.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with all 13 provincial and territorial premiers, and aboriginal leaders, in Vancouver this week to discuss plans for the country’s climate policy.

Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna told CBC News that “climate change mitigation and adaptation needs to go hand-in-hand with responsible economic development.” On the table is a discussion about a Canada-wide carbon tax. Taptuna has said that such a tax does not take northern and remote communities into account. Nunavut is largely dependent on diesel fuel to generate its electricity.

A carbon tax would threaten the “delicate” economy in Nunavut, Taptuna told CBC. Renewable energy may be in the future for Nunavut but, for now, upgrading the inefficient power plants in each community could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A February 17 Globe and Mail article said that the federal government wants to create a plan where the provinces and territories approve a national carbon price of at least CAN$15 per metric ton. There is already a cap-and-trade system between Ontario, Quebec and California.

U.S. Court Upholds Polar Bear Territory

A U.S. federal appeals court has upheld a federal plan to set aside almost 485,000 square kilometers (187,000 square miles) of northern Alaska to protect polar bears.

A lower court had previously ruled against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision on the grounds that it was too vast and unjustified. The Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the state of Alaska, a coalition of Alaska Native groups and other oil and gas interests had brought the suit against the FWS, reported the Alaska Dispatch News.

The plaintiffs said the agency hadn’t provided sufficient detail on how and when the animals used the terrestrial denning area and the barrier island habitat that that made up a portion of the critical habitat, Alaska Native News explained.

In 2010, the FWS had mapped out the area critical to the survival of the polar bear as part of its recovery plan (read the background here). Some of the designated habitat fell on land, along barrier islands and included denning areas, but the vast majority of it included waters in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas

Polar bears use land area for denning and to access the sea. As reported by the Guardian, the FWS acknowledged that it lacked full information on the bear’s denning habits, but the court agreed that it had used the best available data.

Take Part explains that under the Endangered Species Act, federally regulated activities, including oil and gas development, must “account for harm to endangered species in its planning.”

The decision could delay oil and gas development, but it would still be allowed in other parts of the ocean. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator for Alaska, said in a statement that she was “enraged” by the decision.

Recommended Reading

Top image: The first image Copernicus Sentinel-3A satellite captured after its launch shows the transition from day to night over Svalbard, Norway. Part of the satellite’s mission is to make sense of how carbon moves between the oceans and atmosphere, helping to control climate, but also contributing to ocean acidification. (ESA)

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