The Arctic region is vast, remote and frigid. But to Margaret Williams ’89, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic program, the Arctic is far from desolate. “Millions of birds migrate here each year from the Southern Hemi-sphere,” she says. “Whales and other marine mammals travel from as far away as Hawaii and Mexico. Millions upon millions of salmon fill the seas and rivers; literally half of the seafood harvested in the United States comes from the Bering Sea alone.” It’s her job to keep it that way, even as climate change and commercial pressures take their toll on a fragile ecosystem.
Hers is a world of extremes, one in which there’s no such thing as a typical day. Consider, for example, WWF’s efforts on behalf of the polar bear. “Polar bears are the top of the Arctic food chain,” Williams says, “and they tell us a tremendous amount about the health of sea-ice ecosystems.” As sea-ice levels decline, the effort to keep polar bear populations healthy—and away from humans—brings her to some of the most isolated villages in the world. There, she or a member of her seven-person staff might help indigenous communities establish polar bear patrols, or set up tracking programs. A few days later, she may travel to Washington, D.C., or Moscow to advocate on behalf of the international polar bear treaty of 1973.
“In everything we do, we work at vastly different scales—both the global and the extremely local,” Williams says. The Arctic region spans eight countries, so Williams also works across inter-national boundaries.
The work is critically important. Sea ice acts as the planet’s air- conditioning, helping regulate global climate patterns and sequestering gases like methane. Yet Arctic temperatures are warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, and sea ice is declining fast.
“Fifty years ago, if you looked down at the Arctic region from space in summer, you’d see it covered almost entirely with ice,” Williams says. “Twenty years from now, it’s entirely possible that the same summer view will show no ice whatsoever—just a completely dark ocean. It’s an extraordinary change, with huge implications for the economy, for food production and for weather patterns like droughts and hurricanes.”
Melting sea ice also opens up new shipping routes, which translates into growing pressure for more industrial traffic, mining and offshore drilling. Williams cautions that this relentless search for natural resources brings tremendous risks. “Just try to imagine an Arctic oil spill. Here, we’re a thousand miles from the nearest Coast Guard station. There are icebergs, and severe and unpredictable weather patterns. It’s just very hard to imagine an effective response.”
Williams is heartened that in April, the United States will begin its two-year turn at the helm of the Arctic Council, an international body that was created in 1996 to oversee environmental protection and sustainable development. “The Arctic is a different place now than it was then. Nowhere else on earth are ecosystems changing so rapidly, or are as vulnerable because of climate change,” she says. “Through its leadership, the U.S. can initiate projects aimed at building resilience of communities and ecosystems.”
Much of her job involves dispelling myths— from those who don’t believe that humans have a role in climate change (“a small but loud minority,” she says), and from conservationists who forget how many people make a living from the Arctic seas. “The fisheries up here provide a staggering amount of food to the rest of the planet. There are also indigenous peoples who harvest whales and hunt seals for food; it’s not merely their tradition, it’s an incredibly healthy way of life,” she says.
As a student, Williams studied Russian and was considering a career in the foreign service. But an environmental studies class opened her eyes to the threats of climate change and pollution. That same spring, world leaders proposed an international park spanning the Bering Strait. “An enormous light bulb went off for me,” she says. “I thought, that’s how I want to use my education.” She went on to get a master’s degree from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. A fellowship brought her to Alaska, and she never looked back.
“When I go to the Arctic and I see huge numbers of nesting birds, or when I see indigenous people who catch salmon and harvest whales and care so deeply about sustaining these populations, I think, ‘This place is so incredibly inspiring,’” she says. “This is a key moment in time. Not just for the Arctic, but for the entire planet. We have this ocean that is bountiful and that keeps feeding us. If we take care of it, the ocean will continue to take care of us.”
SAQ Winter 2014-15