UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has accepted a petition from environmentalists to protect the Arctic against climate change. At the same time, latest figures show ice in the Arctic sea continues to melt.
As political and business leaders gathered in New York for the special climate summit on Tuesday (23.09.2014), UN host Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accepted a six million signature petition from the environment group Greenpeace calling for long-term protection of the Arctic. As a result of climate change, the region is warming more than twice as fast as the global average, opening the high north to shipping and commercial exploitation.
"I receive this as a common commitment toward our common future, protecting our environment, not only in the Arctic, but all over the world," Ban said as he was handed the petition in the run-up to the climate summit.
He said he would consider convening an international summit to discuss the issue of Arctic protection. He also expressed the desire to travel aboard one of the organization's campaigning ships in the Arctic in the near future.
Greenpeace and other groups are calling for a ban on oil exploration, which could endanger the fragile ecosystem. Experts have also expressed safety concerns about increased shipping.
New York summit has global responsibility
"The Arctic represents a defining test for those attending the summit in New York," Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo said, who was part of the delegation.
Leaders should bear in mind that concern for the rapid warming of the world was not consistent with planning oil and gas development in the melting Arctic, he added.
The small delegation that met Ban included indigenous rights activist and Saami politician Josefina Skerk, who trekked to the North Pole last year to declare the top of the world "the common heritage of everyone on earth."
"We, who want to continue living in the North, are gravely concerned about climate change and the destructive industries that are closing in. My people know and understand the Arctic, and it is changing in a manner, which threatens not just our survival, but the survival of people all over the world," Skerk said.
Humans had created the crisis and had to take action to solve it, he added.
"I urge the Arctic countries in particular to take a giant step up and I think the world needs to pay much closer attention to ensure that it happens. They might as well start here in New York."
Earlier this month, a Greenpeace survey showed that 74 percent of people in 30 countries support the creation of a protected Arctic Sanctuary in the international waters surrounding the North Pole.
Around the same time, the Arctic Council, which combines the Arctic states and indigenous peoples' representatives and is currently chaired by Canada, supported the founding of a new business grouping, the Arctic Economic Council. Its aim is to promote the commercial development of the Arctic region.
'Sense of threat'
Melting ice especially from the Arctic Greenland ice sheet is raising sea levels around the globe, endangering low-lying areas. The President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, recently ended a Greenpeace-organized tour of glaciers in Norway's Svalbard Archipelago. Kiribati is a group of 33 coral atolls located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Many of its atolls rise just a few feet above sea level. Tong said the trip to the Arctic ice had made a deep impression on him, which he would share with world leaders at the U.N. climate summit.
"It's a very fascinating sight. In spite of that, what I feel very deeply is the sense of threat," Tong said. "If all of that ice would disappear, it would end up eroding our shores."
In last year's report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), experts concluded oceans could rise by as much as 1 meter (3.3 feet) by the end of this century if no action is taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming.
"It won't take a lot of sea level rise to affect our islands," Tong said. "We are already having problems."
Sea ice minimum confirms melting trend
The New York summit coincides with the annual announcement of the minimum Arctic sea ice, as the summer season comes to an end. The sea ice - in contrast to glaciers on land - does not influence global sea level, but is regarded as a key indicator of how climate change is affecting the region. The US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported that the ice reached its seasonal minimum on September 17 of about five million square kilometers (1.94 million square kilometers). The figure is the sixth lowest extent since records began.
The minimum ever recorded at the North Pole was 3.29 million square kilometers in 2012 - and the eight lowest years have been the last eight years.
Ice levels in the Arctic have recovered from their all-time low, but are still on a shrinking trend, said NSIDC's Julienne Stroeve. "We have been telling this story for a long time, and we are still telling it," she added.
Satellite data shows that one part of the Laptev Sea was completely clear from sea ice for the first time this summer. One of the most important questions for climate scientists is how soon the Arctic will experience its first sea ice-free summer.
Rod Downie, head of WWF UK's polar program, said that this year's new Arctic minimum should prompt new action from the leaders' meeting in New York.
"As David Cameron prepares to meet other global leaders at the UN climate change summit in New York, the increased frequency of extreme weather that is predicted for the UK as a result of a warming Arctic should serve as a reminder that we need urgent action now to tackle climate change," he said.