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The State of the European Arctic Environment

1. Introduction

This report gives a brief overview of the environmental situation in the European Arctic. It presents the main environmental challenges for the region, and recommendations for policies and management. Several European nations have been and are still active in exploration, resource exploitation, and research in the region. This international activity is likely to increase. As such, the European Arctic is a part of Europe's common environmental and cultural heritage.

The aim of this report is to increase the European awareness of the fact that the region is of great value to all of Europe, and that it is also facing serious environmental threats. Therefore there is a strong need for a common European effort to manage the Arctic environment in a sustainable manner for the future.

The report does not attempt to give a fully comprehensive picture of the region, its ecosystems, or its plant and animal species. It is produced over a brief time period, based on the information available. The references are restricted to the most basic literature. The background text is primarily intended to facilitate an understanding of the important and characteristic features of the European Arctic environment, and the impacts of human activity upon it.

Several international processes are underway producing detailed and well documented status reports for various aspects of the Arctic, such as:

  • the AMAP Assessment under the Rovaniemi process; a large scale arctic environmental assessment produced in co-operation between the eight arctic countries.
  • the report on the State of the Barents Sea Environment, by the Russian-Norwegian Marine Environment Group.
  • The Nordic Council of Ministers' report on the Nordic Arctic Environment.

The above reports are to be published in late 1996 or 1997.

There is no single geographical definition of the extent of the Arctic, and even less so of the European Arctic. There is also no political agreement on the definition of the concept. The definition used in this report is therefore deliberately imprecise, as the geographical distribution of the various phenomena, species, impacts, characteristics, etc. of importance to the region do not always coincide (Figure 1.0).

For the purpose of this report, the European Environment Agency has identified the European Arctic as follows:

  • Iceland, Svalbard archipelago, Franz Joseph Land, and Novaja Zernlja,
  • Scandinavia and Finland north of the Arctic Circle,
  • Murmansk oblast and northern Arkangelsk oblast, northern Karelia, and Nenets east to Yamal,
  • the seas of these land areas as well as the international waters between them.

The report has been prepared for the European Environment Agency by the Norwegian Polar Institute with support from GRID Arendal and several other institutions (see Acknowledgment).

2. Geophysical characteristics

The main geophysical characteristics of the Arctic are low temperatures with pronounced seasonal variations in climate, including a large variation in the solar radiation between the long night of winter and the long day of summer, and the extended periods of ice and snow cover. On land the temperatures vary greatly through the seasons, and permafrost strongly influences soil formation, vegetation structure, and hydrological processes. Glaciers are predominant only on the High Arctic islands.

Arctic sea temperatures are more stable than land temperatures throughout the year. Sea ice development strongly influences the marine ecosystem dynamics. The Barents and Kara Seas are among the largest shallow continental shelf seas in the world. Due to influxes of warm air and water from the south, these areas are generally the mildest and most humid parts of the Arctic. These ocean and air currents, along with the Transpolar Current flowing out from the Arctic Basin into the waters of the European Arctic, also make the area a "sink" for long-range contaminants and pollutants.

The geophysical characteristics of the arctic seas also contribute to large-scale deep water formation east of Iceland and Greenland. The function of these seas as a CO2 sink, along with their large areas with high albedo caused by ice and snow, are important features affecting the global climate system and the regulation of the greenhouse effect.

3. Biota of the European Arctic

The European Arctic is dominated by the marine environment in its central and northern parts. Terrestrial ecosystems are limited to Arctic islands and to the continental land masses at the southern limits of the region. In general, strong seasonality, with its associated intensification in environmental harshness, distinguishes the polar environment from intermediate and lower latitude environments. The evolution of Arctic organisms has therefore led to specific adaptations to seasonal stress. Most Arctic ecosystems subject to strong environmental variability have relatively few species, but within them there can be large populations of one or more of these species. The more stable environments, such as the marine benthic environment, may contain levels of species diversity similar to that of more southern latitudes.

Most of the European Arctic - including the high Arctic islands - is biologically richer and more productive than other Arctic areas at similar latitudes. This is primarily due to a large, continuous influx of warm, nutrient-rich water-masses from the south, with accompanying warm winds, as well as a steady supply of nutrient-rich water masses from the Arctic Sea to the north. The marine ecosystem of the European Arctic is also characterised by large natural variations in biological production and in standing biomass. At times these natural fluctuations have catastrophic consequences for populations. The main factors influencing these fluctuations are shifts in the direction and temperature of the water flowing into the system from the south.

Where cold Arctic water-masses meet the warmer water from the Atlantic ocean, there is a zone of strong thermal gradients and mixing, referred to as the polar front. The polar front shifts position depending on the volume, temperature and direction of the component water-masses. The area around the polar front in the Barents Sea is among the most productive marine areas in the world. This production supports many species of marine invertebrates, fish, mammals and sea birds. It also supports a large international fishing industry.

Most of the productivity in this area of otherwise low production is concentrated along the marginal ice-zone during spring and summer. The melting of sea ice creates a stable upper water layer with lower salinity. These stable water masses, combined with sufficient irradiation and nutrients, allow an enhanced production along the borders of the retreating pack ice. The northern Barents and Kara Seas are less productive because they are covered by ice most of the year, and only receive a limited influx of warm, nutrient-rich water. However, there is a net influx of nutrients to the European Arctic seas in the deeper water layers.

The terrestrial ecosystems of the European Arctic are less rich in species, and far less productive than the marine ecosystems. The land ecosystems are, however far more stable, and are thus not adapted to large-scale fluctuations in climate or nutrients. The land areas are dominated by boreal forests in the south and by tundra on permafrost in the north. Winter survival is often the limiting factor for Arctic land species. Only a few animal species have developed life-strategies which enable them to spend all year in the Arctic terrestrial environment. Other animals in the European Arctic only take advantage of the bountiful Arctic summer biomass production - both on land and in the seas - by migrating north in the spring and south in the autumn. Migratory species thus constitute a large proportion of the summer fauna - especially on land - in the European Arctic.

4. Human activities and impacts

The European Arctic is sparsely populated. The total population of the area is 4.2 million, of which the majority is found in the Russian Federation. The indigenous populations in the European Arctic descend from ethnic groups that migrated from central Asia prior to and during the early Middle Ages. Descendants of the so-called Finnish branch, are found in the northern parts of Scandinavia and in the Arkangelsk oblast in the Russian Federation, while descendants of the Samojed branch inhabit the areas further north-east in Arkangelsk oblast.

The main economic activities of the region are: ocean fisheries, forest industry, agriculture, hunting, mining, metallurgic industry, petroleum exploration, military activity and tourism. These activities have a relatively large impact on the Arctic environment. Physical disturbances due to activities such as the development of infrastructure, construction of production facilities, and non-sustainable harvest of forest, contribute to the deterioration of the last terrestrial wilderness in the European Arctic. Over-fishing, off-shore petroleum exploitation and production, dumping of radioactive waste from civic and military activities, may cause depletion and massive contamination of one of the most important fish stocks of the world.

Pollution sources outside the Arctic are a threat to the European Arctic environment. Persistent organic pollutants (POP) are transported northward by air, sea and possibly river water, and accumulate to hazardous levels in the food chain. Long-range transported sulphur dioxide (SO2) may cause <>. Heavy metal emissions from industry in the region cause serious contamination locally and regionally. Improperly stored and handled radioactive materials are a major threat to the region, but so far contamination levels are very low and European reprocessing plants are the main source of radioactive pollution in the European Arctic.

5. The Environmental Status

Despite low human population densities, and limited industrial, economic, and other activities, even remote parts of the European Arctic are affected by long range pollutants. There are severe environmental problems in parts of the north-western parts of the Russian Federation, and there is also pressure on parts of the marine, taiga and tundra ecosystems elsewhere in the region due to exploitation and physical encroachments. There is a need for improved marine habitat protection, in particular in the drift-ice zone in the Barents Sea.

Still, the European Arctic environment is characterised by having the largest areas of near-pristine wilderness in Europe. Most of the marine, and substantial parts of the terrestrial ecosystems, are intact, with undisturbed habitats and vegetation, and viable, unharvested populations of fish, birds and mammals. Such qualities, which are of global importance, are becoming exceedingly rare elsewhere, and they contribute to making the environment in the region outstandingly valuable to all o Europe.

6. State of Action and Protection


Prevention of pollution, and protection of arctic wildlife and habitats are keystones to preserving Arctic wilderness as a valuable heirloom for future generations. However, a wide range of policy instruments will need to be utilised if both conservation and sustainable development in the Arctic are to be possible. Currently, the gravest threats to the Arctic environment are of transboundary origin. International co-operation is vital for substantiating Arctic environmental values and for safeguarding the sustainable development of these last pristine wilderness areas in Europe.

7. Threats and challenges to the European Arctic Environment

The main current threats to the European Arctic environment are:

  • Habitat fragmentation, degradation, or destruction
  • Over-harvesting of biological resources
  • The potential for radioactive contamination
  • Persistent organic pollutants
  • Oil pollution
  • Tourism in vulnerable areas
  • Introduction of alien species and diseases
  • Cumulative impacts
  • Long-range pollution transport
  • Climate change
  • Ozone depletion, UV-radiation

There are in particular three characteristics of human activities that imply a future challenge to the European Arctic environment:

  • The need for development: Economy and industry in the north-west of the Russian Federation.
  • The tragedy of the commons: Sustainability of national and international fisheries.
  • "The last frontier" attitude: Obsolete and ageing practices and technologies.

8. Objectives and Recommendations

The European nations should recognise the unique values of the European Arctic environment, it's ecosystems, biodiversity, wilderness areas and cultural heritage, and see it as their common responsibility to protect these values for the benefit of today's and future generations. Concerted action by European and other nations is needed to counteract current environmental problems, restore affected areas and resources, and ensure an environmentally sustainable future development.

It should be recognised that in order to achieve this ' a different and higher level of environmental management is needed in the European Arctic than in most other parts of Europe.

Action is needed at all geopolitical levels. International co-operation can direct political focus and resources to the region, and facilitate coordinated responses to transboundary issues and problems. Such CO-operation should primarily be based on existing conventions, agreements, programs and other co-operative efforts, such as the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy Rovaniemi process (AMAP, CAFF, PAME, EPPR, TFSI), the Barents Region Environmental Task Force, the Nordic Council of Ministers' work on the Arctic Environment, the bilateral environmental co-operation in the area as well as the European Environment Agency and EU programmes.

Still, the main responsibility for actions lies with the individual nations. Most economic activity, management, development, and enforcement of regulations within the European Arctic is based on national law. As most important activities in the European Arctic are locally based action, information and education at this level are essential.


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