A Long Migration, Human Consciousness, And The Future Of The Arctic Refuge

(This piece was written and submitted by Susan Sorg, and originally appeared on OneWildLife.) Evolution has linked migratory birds with the perfect habitat, so much so that the benefits of the Arctic tundra and its abundant insects, invertebrates, and vegetation outweighs the risks of migrating thousands of miles.

Above: An Arctic loon stretches its wings. (Richard Spener Photography)

By: Susan Sorg

A higher consciousness of interconnection will shift the global trajectory of habitat loss and reawaken us to the roots of human evolution and web of life. As advocates for wilderness, we validate our higher consciousness and what it means to protect a place we may never actually see, as the Arctic Refuge. Humans have never been separate from the web of life, and our own survival is inherently linked to acting on this understanding.

A male and female king eider (Florian Schulz / www.florianschulz.org)

Evolution has linked migratory birds with the perfect habitat, so much so that the benefits of the Arctic tundra and its abundant insects, invertebrates and vegetation outweigh the risks of migrating thousands of miles. Biologist and author Bernd Heinrich explains in Winter World: “Each bird species, like every organism on Earth, feels most at home in the specific environment to which it has been tailored by natural selection and instinctively seeks that environment and avoids others.”

The Arctic Refuge coastal plain is the tailored habitat for nearly two hundred species of birds that converge there every spring. An intricate evolutionary story of adaptation, evolution and biological forces has performed on this stage for tens of thousands of years. Birds from six continents transform the tundra into one of the planet’s most biodiverse nesting grounds with an explosion of new life.

Yet the unthinkable happened in December making the future of the Arctic Refuge precarious, when the GOP tax plan was signed into law. Pro-oil GOP politicians manipulated the legislative process and found a loophole to include drilling the Arctic Refuge in their tax bill.

Arctic tern (Tapio Kaisla Flickr CC)

The Arctic tern travels 12,500 miles one-way from its overwintering grounds in Antarctica to nest on the Arctic Refuge each spring and is the longest-distance flyer of any bird on the planet. This four-ounce bird with long, narrow wings is well adapted for slow, low-altitude flight and spends the majority of its life ‘en route’ to its next destination or a migratory stopover in-between. It migrates 25,000 miles every year for the Arctic’s abundant food and habitat. Terns can live over thirty years and may fly over 750,000 miles in their lifetime.

“Virtually every species of bird that occurs in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is migratory,” explains David Sibley in Seasons of Life and Land, Subhankar Banarjee’s two-year photographic journey of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

If drilling occurs on the coastal plain, terns would arrive to discover the nesting grounds they’ve evolved with and migrated to for possibly millions of years defiled by industrial trucks, drills, roads and noise.

The tern population on the Atlantic coast is declining because parent terns cannot find herring to feed their young, and chicks cannot digest any alternate fish. Thousands of tern chicks have been found washed up on the shore. Herring is disappearing from ocean warming caused by climate change and from over-fishing.

Semipalmated plovers on an Arctic shore (Richard Spener / www.richardspenerphotography.com)

Tundra swans (Paul Konrad)

Habitat loss, climate change, pesticides, herbicides and trophy hunting are taking a deadly toll on birds and wildlife. The Nature Needs Half movement launched by biologist and author E. O. Wilson gives hope that with cooperative efforts to preserve the intact wilderness that still exists, there may be time to save species.

Since Subhankar Banarjee began his two-year photographic journey of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2001, climate change has dramatically accelerated. We wonder now if the mother polar bears are able to feed their cubs or even find enough snow for a den. The muskox baby he observed risked becoming a predator’s meal, but now the Arctic’s warmer, rainy winters induced by climate change are proving deadly to muskox herds as they fall through ice, are trapped and drown.

Pectoral sandpiper (Richard Spener / www.richardspenerphotography.com)

Climate change, created by industry and agriculture, has become the planet’s predator. Changes in choices and behavior are the only way to slow its wrath.

Opening the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling will only exacerbate the effects of climate change in Alaska, effects which are no longer theory but reality as villages lose coastlines and winter ice that their economies depend upon. We do not need the oil that certain politicians propose we do—we have a surplus. What we do need is for progressive representatives to help us achieve true national security through global leadership in sustainable energy. Increasing oil and gas drilling in the Arctic is taking a huge step backwards that will worsen climate change and destroy one of the Earth’s greatest remaining intact ecosystems.



Biologists worried by migratory birds’ starvation, seen as tied to climate change, Darryl Fears. June 19, 2013. The Washington Post.

Birds connect Arctic Refuge with the world, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (Last updated: December 30, 2013.)

Birds in the Arctic Refuge.

Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight for Life, Edward O. Wilson. 2016. Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Seasons of Life and Land, A Photographic Journey, Subhankar Banerjee. 2003. The Mountaineers Books.

Winter World – ‘The Kinglet’s Winter Fuel,’ Bernd Heinrich. 2003. HarperCollins.