OPINION: As the Arctic melts, we rise

by Mya-Rose Craig | Greenpeace International
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 11:55 GMT

18-year-old environmental activist and campaigner Mya-Rose Craig poses on an ice floe in the Arctic as part of the most northerly climate strike at 82.2° North in the Arctic Ocean, September 20, 2020 in this handout photo from Daniella Zalcman/Greenpeace via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I sat alone on the melting Arctic ice in what, to me, felt like a final, desperate cry for help for both the Arctic and the world

By Mya Rose Craig, a British-Bangladeshi 18-year-old ornithologist and nature, climate and equal rights campaigner, also known as “Birdgirl”  

When you say 'arctic wildlife', most people don’t tend to think of birds. Their mind’s eye is more likely to look towards the majestic mammals of the frozen north: polar bears, narwhals and walruses. But for birders like me, the real beauties of this landscape are neither walking on the ice nor swimming in the sea but soaring through the stinging Arctic air.

The Arctic is home to millions of birds. The vast majority migrate here for the summer to enjoy the brief window of round-the-clock sunlight and waters teeming with food, but a few hardy types stay here all year round. Ivory gulls, beautiful, pure white birds that blend seamlessly into the ice and snow, were what I had set my eye on when heading up north. They linger with the edge of the ice sheet through the darkness of the winter and unrelenting sunlight of the summer months, following Polar Bears from kill to kill to scavenge from the remains. Seeing them was, to me, as emblematic of the Arctic as seeing a Polar Bear would be for most people, and I could barely wipe a smile from my face for the rest of the day.

Like everything else in the Arctic, these birds rely on the delicate web of life woven by the continuous back and forth of the ice and sea each year. Like them, their very existence is now threatened by the havoc a warming climate is wreaking on the Arctic. 

I adore birds, and have dedicated a lifetime to watching them; the climate emergency is now my biggest concern. I’m 18 and since I was a child I have visited dozens of different countries where I have identified over 5,000 bird species. In every place I visited, local people told me about how the climate crisis poses an existential threat to birds and other animals. That there is no safe haven from a broken climate.

This is why I joined an expedition to the very edge of the sea ice onboard the Greenpeace ship 'Arctic Sunrise’. I’m here to witness this year’s sea ice minimum: the moment when the giant expanse of sea ice around the North Pole shrinks to its lowest ebb before expanding again during winter. But, as one of the millions of students who have been striking all over the world to demand climate action, I’m also here to hold the most northerly climate strike ever. I sat alone on the melting Arctic ice with the message ‘Youth Strike For Climate’ brandished for the world in what, to me, felt like a final, desperate cry for help for both the Arctic and the world. 

After having spent a lifetime being told that my planet is dying, its impossible for me to be anything but furious as I watch my future melt down the drain. I think the climate strikes have been revolutionary in terms of giving young people a voice, to show people in power where our priorities lie, and my protest was to show that that whole world is watching as our leaders have consistently prioritised money over the planet.

This year’s sea ice minimum is the second-lowest on record, and continuing to follow the pattern of the past few years as the Arctic shrinks further and further. Some studies now predict that the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer as soon as 2035, the year I turn 33, a prospect that feels entirely too real as I look over the endless fields of melting ice surrounding the ship. 

And yet what’s happening in the Arctic is not just all too real: its impacts will also be felt all around the world. The ice sheets reflect heat away from the Earth and prevent it from warming up. Melting glaciers also contribute to rising sea levels, threatening to displace millions of people around the world living in low-lying areas. What’s happening in the Arctic isn’t staying in the Arctic.

That’s why we need world leaders to understand the gravity of the situation and take action, starting with the UN Summit on Biodiversity happening today. As the climate and nature crises keep unfolding all around us, action has to be taken that can help tackle both. One of the most obvious and effective solutions is to protect a large swathe of our oceans from destructive fishing and other human activities.

Oceans are not just a victim of the climate crisis, they are also an essential part of the solving it. They help to take carbon out of the atmosphere, and healthy oceans that are full of life can help store more of this carbon away safely in our oceans rather than heating our planet. According to scientists, the Arctic is one of the priority areas that need our protection, through a network of marine sanctuaries around the globe, because of its key importance to climate stability.

Like the unprecedented wildfires blazing along the West Coast of the US and the floods that hit millions of people in South East Asia this summer, the melting Arctic is yet another wake-up call humanity cannot afford to ignore. Sitting back is no longer an option, and waiting for people, especially world leaders, to take action is terrifying when you know that it could all be too late. If we want to protect the natural world that we love, and ourselves, ignoring the issue is no longer an option.

 We have to act, and we have to act now.