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You are here: Home / Signals — well-being and the environment / Signals 2010 / Arctic — why should I care?

Arctic — why should I care?

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Dines Mikaelsen steadies his rifle against the bow of the gently bobbing boat, loads the chamber and signals to his companions to keep quiet. The Inuit hunter has already missed a couple of times. He squeezes the trigger. A loud crack echoes off the icebergs and a football field away a seal collapses.

Dines' four companions – tourists – are stunned. This is what they came to see but it still shocks them a little. Dines and the tourists he now depends on for a large percentage of his earnings are still quite new to each other. While other cultures subsist almost entirely on neat cuts of meat wrapped in cellophane, hunting and traditional forms of animal herding are still central to cultures across the Arctic.

Arctic culture and landscapes, just like Dines' small tourist business, are being shaped by two powerful forces: globalisation and climate change. Globalisation has brought MTV, iPods, state-of-the-art navigation systems and greater exposure to the outside world.

Climate change is transforming the frozen landscape, melting glaciers and opening seaways. This offers some new opportunities. Cruise ships have started showing up for the first time in Tasiilaq, Dines' village on the island of Ammassalik on Greenland's bleak east coast. In 2006, four cruise ships arrived; the following year it was eight.

'Five years ago, there weren't any flies in the North of Greenland. Now they have them. Here the flies arrive a month earlier than they used to,' says Dines. It’s also noticeably warmer. Summer temperatures in Tasiilaq have reached as high as 22 degrees in recent summers — shattering previous records.

Pollution and breastfeeding (18)

Numerous dangerous pollutants, including agricultural chemicals, flame retardants, heavy metals and radioactive materials, have been impacting the Arctic and the people who live there for decades.

Pollution from elsewhere is carried to the Arctic by wind and sea. Because of the low temperatures, pollutants such as DDT fail to break down and instead remain in the water. As they are absorbed by fatty tissue, such as seal flesh, these chemicals are carried to the local population. In some parts of the Arctic breastfeeding mothers are therefore advised to supplement young babies’ feeding with powdered milk to reduce exposure.

What is happening in the Arctic?

Climate change is having a greater impact on the Arctic than elsewhere. Temperatures in the Arctic have increased by twice the global average over the past 50 years (19). The Catlin Arctic Survey, carried out in spring 2009, surveyed ice over a 280‑mile route along the Beaufort Sea, located at the northern ridge of the Arctic. The ice was six feet deep and only one year old, on average. Older, thicker, more stable sea ice is disappearing. In 2008 the North-West and North-East Passage shipping routes through the Arctic were briefly navigable by boat in the summer for the first time since records began.

The impacts threaten to destroy the delicate network of Arctic ecosystems, which are already changing rapidly. Arctic sea ice in particular is causing concern. The ice and the sea below it are home to a tapestry of life — all at risk from global warming.

Polar bears are starving to death because the ice closest to the sea, the preferred resting place of seals, is too thin to support them. Migrating birds that spend the summer in the Arctic are missing the most plentiful spring blossoming season, because it occurs three weeks earlier — before they arrive.

What is the Arctic?

The Arctic is an enormous area, sprawling over one sixth of the earth's landmass; twenty-four time zones and more than 30 million km2. Much of the Arctic region is covered by ocean, up to 4 km deep, but large land areas are also found there.

The Arctic is inhabited by some 4 million people, including more than 30 indigenous peoples. Eight states (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States) have territories in the Arctic region. Five of these are member countries of the European Environment Agency, of which three are EU Member States.

Why should I care about the Arctic?

For many of us, the Arctic may seem very remote in terms of geography and relevance. However, the region plays a key role in regulating the world's climate. If climate change continues at predicted rates, it will have profound consequences for us all.

The north and south poles play a vital role in regulating the Earth’s climate — acting as our cooling system. Reduced snow cover will mean that the Earth absorbs more heat from the sun and ocean currents shift. The Arctic Ocean, a mixture of fresh melt water and seawater, influences ocean currents around the globe. Some scientists believe that too much fresh melt water could actually 'switch off ' some of these sea currents, which play a crucial role in the climate further south.

The Arctic region is also home to millions of people, many from unique, indigenous populations. These people and their cultures are also at risk.

New economic activities in the Arctic

Melting Arctic sea ice and glaciers will open up new areas for human exploitation. It is likely that many economic activities in the Arctic will increase in coming decades. Fishing will occur further north when the ice retreats; oil and especially gas resources in the Arctic will be exploited; tourism is already expanding; shipping will most likely grow in line with exports of Arctic resources.

Intercontinental transport of goods may come with more open water and thinner ice, but requires development of ships and infrastructure. The extraction of minerals, timber and other resources may also increase. The various Arctic nations could begin to compete with each other for control of resources, territory and shipping routes.
Balancing the potential that a warmer Arctic offers against the risks (such as oil spills and environmental impacts) represents a significant challenge — one that requires changes to the way the Arctic is governed.

Environmental governance

In other parts of the world, the environmental challenge is to restore damaged ecosystems. In the Arctic, we still have the chance to protect what is, for the most part, a unique environment.

The current Arctic governance system is very fragmented. While a broad range of international agreements apply to the Arctic, they were not made specifically for the region and their implementation and enforcement is uneven, even among the Arctic states.

In November 2008 the European Commission presented a paper outlining the EU's interests in the region and proposing a set of actions for EU Member States and institutions. It is the first step towards an integrated EU Arctic policy. The EU's main objectives are:

  • to protect and preserve the Arctic in unison with its population;
  • to promote sustainable use of resources;
  • to contribute to enhanced multilateral governance of the Arctic.

Polar bears on involuntary diets

Climate change is causing weight loss among polar bears as the ice starts to thaw earlier and earlier each spring, according to 'Signs of Climate Change in Nordic Nature', a new report by the Nordic Council of Ministers. The earlier thaw restricts the number of seals that the bears can hunt. In certain parts of the Arctic the average female now weighs only 225 kg, which is 25 % less than two decades ago. If the trend continues there is a risk of the polar bear disappearing completely from parts of the Arctic.

The report identifies indicators that will help quantify the impact of climate change and follow developments in Nordic eco-systems. The 14 indicators describe the impact of global warming on, for example, the growing and pollen seasons, and fish and plankton stocks. Pollen seasons are starting earlier and earlier, making life more difficult for allergy sufferers. In parts of Denmark, Norway and Iceland, the birch pollen season now starts a month earlier than it did in the 1980s, for example.

18. Amap Assessment 2009: Human Health in the Arctic

19. IPCC, Fourth Assessment Report (4AR), Summary For Policy Makers, 2007

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