Do we need to build a polar ark?

Arctic plants could hold important new medical breakthroughs — but only if we act to preserve them.

By Colleen Narlock - December 24, 2018
Flowering Parrya nudicaulis against a background of prolific crowberries on the Arctic tundra in Cape Krusenstern National Monument in Alaska. (National Park Service)

When Noah got news of the encroaching great flood, he rallied together one female and one male of each animal onto his ark, preserving these species for decades to come.

Scientists are now telling us that the consequences of climate change are upon us and unfortunately the plants and animals in the Arctic have nowhere left to go. They can’t keep moving north, as their habitats melt away, sometimes quite literally. Do we need to build a polar ark to save them for future generations?

But why does this really matter? Why should we save the polar bear, let alone the algae or moss below its feet?

The future of modern medicine depends on it and the cures to our world’s most problematic diseases could remain hidden within the chemical compounds that make Arctic species.

Did you ever think about where that aspirin you took for a headache last week really come from? Do scientists and chemists spend their days mixing up new concoctions of chemicals, hoping to make the next medical breakthrough?

That aspirin you took was all thanks to a discovery made by ancient Egyptians, that the bark of a willow tree had pain and inflammation reducing properties. Now scientists are pushing nature even further and have found chemotherapy treatments from marine animals and potent antibiotics from bacteria and fungi.

Marcel Jaspars of the University of Aberdeen and the Director of the Marine Biodiversity Centre humbly explains to us that “People often think that we’re the best at making things chemically and then we discover that nature has been there before … Why wouldn’t nature do this?’ And the answer is, it already did. We only just found it.”

But we’re quickly losing one of our most valuable sources for new medical discoveries as climate change threatens the biodiversity of the Arctic. And it’s happening fast. In less than 90 years we are on track to lose over 50 percent of Arctic habitats, the home to 21,000 plants and animals and the millions of unexplored chemical compounds that they’re composed of.

While groups such as the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (the Arctic Council’s biodiversity working group) and many universities are actively working to map and monitor biodiversity across the arctic, one key piece of information is missing; the organisms’ chemical composition and genetic makeup. We need to record this data, before extinction makes it impossible.

In a time where antibiotics are becoming antiquated with the rise of antibiotic resistant microbes, tropical diseases expanding beyond the tropics (another symptom of climate change), and fatal diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s remaining mysterious and incurable, losing our polar pharmacy exponentially limits our medical progress.

CAFF reports that the Arctic holds 100 rare vascular plants, 96 of which are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  And the biodiversity of microorganisms (e.g. bacteria) in the Arctic is far less known. But, why does this matter so much to the future of modern medicine? What is so special about Arctic biodiversity? Simply speaking, the answer is its uniqueness and its organisms’ ability to adapt to such harsh living conditions. The extreme temperatures, proximity to geothermal vents, and convergence of cold and warm water currents, all cause unique adaptations for survival, all of which are rooted in a biological and chemical explanation. By targeting these species, we can discover new compounds linked to biological activity, isolate and harness their abilities to create novel drugs. But we are running out of time.

The idea of using nature for medicine is far from novel. Almost 70 percent of today’s medications have origins in nature, yet it is easy to disassociate the aspirin one might take for a headache from the ancient Egyptian approach of chewing on willow tree bark. A more recent discovery, trabectedin, was approved by the FDA in 2015 as a treatment option for sarcomas. Originally derived from a sea squirt, this chemical compound has shown significant promise in anti-tumor activity and has since offered patients a new chemotherapy option.

One program, the Arctic Biodiversity Centre with the University of Tromsø, in Norway, is already making headway. Limited to the Norwegian coast, it already has discovered 150 novel biological compounds, 50 of which show potential medicinal properties ranging from anti-cancer to anti-inflammatory responses. So why, in the presence of all these radical medical discoveries, are programs like the Arctic Biodiversity Centre so rare, and pharmaceutical companies and governments are slowing down their natural product research? Cost.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that to find just one chemical compound usable for cancer treatment, 15,000-20,000 compounds need to be analyzed. If you factor in the cost of sending scientists across the globe to collect biological samples, transporting these samples to a lab, analyzing their chemical compound makeup, testing these chemicals for anti-cancer properties, and finally running clinical trials to finalize drug discovery, it is no wonder pharmaceutical companies are seeking cheaper routes of synthesizing novel drugs.

Yet drug creation has slowed to such an alarming rate that during the Obama administration a government drug development center was created to boost the pharmaceutical industry.  We have taken a turn in the wrong direction, and rather than funnel more money into attempting to create new drugs from nothing, we should go back to our roots, where we have historically had the most success.

Building a “polar ark” will preserve the valuable information stored in the Arctic but we need to figure out how to build it quickly and cost-efficiently to save all species (plants, animals, and microbes) to be used for medicine for generations to come.

Colleen Narlock is a first year Master of Public Policy student at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She plans to work on policy solutions and innovations to remedy public health concerns caused by climate change and other environmental issues.

This piece is one of a series of op-eds written by students of the Arctic Innovators Course at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Arctic Initiative. You can read the full series on this site.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Arctic Initiative or Arctic Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at)