Sea ice decreases in the Arctic. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

By Juan Hernandez

In the last few months, our country has been facing the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and unfortunately, a lot has ground to a halt. But through it all, the climate crisis has continued unabated, including through the melting of the Arctic.

While the world’s focus is rightly pointed towards halting the spread of COVID-19 and finding a vaccine, the melting of the Arctic will not wait and the impacts will also be felt globally.. 

I grew up near the shore of our rising sea, in Chesapeake, with only 20 miles standing between me and the beach. My love for the water has never changed but its changing tides worry me more and more.

I began volunteering for various environmental organizations so that I could advocate for legislation that would enforce stronger protections for our oceans and coastal waterways. This is where I truly merged my interests in the environmental and legal sectors. These two experiences were critical in influencing my current volunteer position as one of the ambassadors for the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary. Funded through the Parvati Foundation, an international volunteer-based nonprofit organization, MAPS is critical in the fight to protect our planet.

MAPS is a treaty that advocates for the declaration of the Arctic Circle as an international park that will prominently safeguard the ice from further exploitation and in turn help prevent future political and natural disasters.

Protecting the Arctic sea ice is vitally important, but it is vanishing before our eyes. The frozen Arctic Ocean is one of our planetary life support systems, as it plays a critical role in keeping the earth cool. The Arctic ice in summer now typically covers much less area than it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The melting of the sea ice will contribute to warming that is driving sea level rise around the world, threatening lives, habitats and property.  

While the territorial debate over the Arctic has been building momentum for decades, exploration has proceeded unchecked. As cargo ships pass through the region with increasing frequency, they contribute to the breakup of the ice, speeding melting. Commercial vessels pose serious environmental risks to the arctic ocean. Threats to living resources from commercialization include fuel spills, noise pollution, contamination, ship collision and habitat degradation.

Worse, dramatic flooding and natural disaster events will only intensify as the melted ice will change the chemistry of the water. Gases, particles and long-dormant pathogens like anthrax released from permafrost will not only increase the warming of the Earth but pose a major public health threat. 

We must use every tool within our means to prevent these consequences, including transitioning to a 100 percent clean energy economy and protecting the Arctic from further resource development and militarization by signing the MAPS treaty. MAPS ensures continued protection of the Arctic Ocean’s living resources while also maintaining peace and international cooperation between all our great nations. MAPS also catalyzes a global shift to sustainable energy and development. 

Our collective response to COVID-19 has shown that we can come together to combat a crisis. I challenge all of us to find that same urgency and passion to combat the climate crisis right now, as what we do, or don’t do, today will affect generations to come.

Juan Hernandez is a health care worker and an ambassador to the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary. He lives in Chesapeake.