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Why Uncertainty Matters in Managing the Arctic Ecosystem

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.

Henry Huntington is the Arctic Science director for the Pew Environment Group.

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