The Arctic and environmental change threats

The Arctic region surrounds the North Pole and includes areas covered by both land and oceans, the latter having by far the greatest extension. Southward, the region is limited by the Arctic Circle (at 66°N latitude), but this is only a convention and does not reflect climatic conditions. For example, the southernmost tip of Greenland extends as far south as 60°N – the same latitude as Oslo and St. Petersburg – but has a more high-arctic climate than the northern part of Northwestern Europe (71°N latitude), which is heated by the North Atlantic Current. The high-arctic climate is harsh, with low temperatures, ice cover and polar nights during winter and a short summer season.

The area is inhabited by many species that are endemic to the Arctic, such as polar bears and polar cod. Some people assume that since these organisms live under harsh conditions, they should tolerate change in their environment. Unfortunately, this assumption is wrong. All organisms are adapted to the environment in which they have evolved, and polar organisms are as vulnerable to a change in their environment as other organisms. The Arctic has few species and short food chains and thus simple food webs. This actually makes the Arctic particularly vulnerable to environmental change. When an Arctic species is lost, it is unlikely that a new one will take its place and replace its function in the ecosystem.

The Arctic is under great threat from a multitude of environmental changes induced by human activities, most importantly through climate change, but also through pollution, industrial fishing, foreign species introduced to the area, nuclear waste and petroleum activity. Climate change is probably the process that will cause the single greatest impact in the Arctic in the coming years. For example, a global temperature change of one degree translates to a threefold temperature increase in the Arctic. This implies that, without cuts in global CO2 emissions, the Barents Sea will be ice free by 2050. This habitat loss will probably be fatal for the polar bear and many other ice-associated organisms.

To maintain the ecosystem structure and function of the Arctic it will be necessary to 1) prevent further climate change effects and 2) make the Arctic less vulnerable to the coming climate change effects. Prevention of climate change (1) can only be reached by global cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. To make the Arctic less vulnerable to climate change (2), the resilience – or buffer capacity – of the Arctic ecosystem has to be obtained by decreasing the synergetic effects of human threats in the area. This can be accomplished by:

– reducing pollution in the area as well as transportation of pollution to the area;
– reducing over-fishing by legal and illegal industrialised fishing enterprises;
– preventing introduction of foreign species and reducing effects of introduced foreign species;
– removing sources of nuclear waste, and
– preventing petroleum activity altogether or making it less harmful for the environment.

Maria Fossheim