Executive Summary

Page Last modified 20 Apr 2016
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The European Arctic: Remote, but still threatened

Despite its vast area, small human population, and limited industrial and economic development, the European Arctic is affected by several aspects of human activity. This large area of sparsely populated land and sea has been seen as a region for unlimited resource harvesting, into which large amounts of contaminants, such as nuclear wastes, can be deposited. The Kola Peninsula and surrounding areas are particularly affected by heavy industrial pollution, large scale physical encroachments and military installations and activities. Large amounts of improperly stored radioactive material in this area are serious threats to all of the European Arctic. Intensive, partly unregulated fisheries in the Barents and Norwegian Seas, have over-exploited key species. Even in remote, high arctic areas, high levels of long-range transported contaminants are found in mammals and birds.

Oil exploration, and other activities based on obsolete technologies, cause heavy pollution in some areas. The expected large scale oil and gas development in the region will increase the potential for major environmental impacts seriously.

Europe's last wilderness - a unique asset

While the European Arctic is substantially influenced by humans in some areas, it is at the same time an area with environmental assets which are unique in Europe. Its large wilderness areas are virtually pristine and intact, and the habitats, vegetation and populations of fish, birds and mammals are far less affected by man than elsewhere in Europe. The marine ecosystems are highly productive and of great economic, social and cultural importance, not only to the region itself, but also to many other European nations. Geophysical processes in the region are of major importance in the regulation of the global climate. The region offers unique opportunities for monitoring changes in the global environment, and for studying other natural processes of global significance. It can confidently be predicted that in a world where areas unaffected by man are rapidly decreasing in size and number, the European Arctic wilderness and its ecosystems will - if properly managed - become an increasingly valuable asset.

The state of the European Arctic environment can be summarised as follows:

The High Arctic islands

(Svalbard, Franz Joseph Land, the northern part of Novaja Zemlja and the surrounding areas of the Barents and Kara Seas)

  • Are "sinks" for long-range transboundary air and marine pollution.
  • Contain large, undisturbed wilderness areas.
  • Have marine and terrestrial ecosystems that are largely regulated by natural processes. Have large populations of naturally occurring species.
  • Have low human population densities, and limited human activities and impacts.
  • Are highly valuable as scientific and environmental reference areas.
  • Are important in climatic processes, and as indicators of other globally important environmental changes.

The north-eastern seas and tundra

(Eastern Barents, Pechora and Kara Seas, adjacent coastal and tundra areas and large river estuaries)

  • Are important pathways (rivers, sea ice, ocean currents) for pollutants (radionuclides, hydrocarbons, persistent organic pollutants (P0Ps), heavy metals etc.) to the European Arctic.
  • Contain large amounts of radionuclides dumped in the Kara and Barents Sea.
  • Have high persistent organic pollutants levels in top predators in the Svalbard area.
  • Have depleted capelin stocks (a key species) in the Barents Sea.
  • Have areas with oil contamination of soil and watercourses.
  • Have substantial areas where the wilderness has been degraded (oil/industry infrastructure encroachments).
  • Are home to indigenous peoples.
  • Have large marine, coastal and tundra wilderness areas.
  • Have highly productive (the Barents Sea) and healthy marine ecosystems and unique drift ice ecosystems.
  • Contain large populations of naturally occurring species, including seabirds, seals, and characteristic Arctic species (e.g. polar bear, walrus).
  • Are of high value as scientific and environmental reference areas.

The north-western seas

(Icelandic waters, the Greenland Sea and northern Norwegian Sea)

  • Contain expanding populated, cultivated and industrialised areas in Iceland.
  • Contain unique geological landscape features in Iceland.
  • Is completely deforested (historically; overgrazing).
  • Have over-exploited cod stocks, while herring stocks are recovering.
  • Still contain large marine areas that are highly productive, with healthy and economically important marine ecosystems.
  • Have large populations of naturally occurring species, including seals and seabirds.
  • Are home to viable populations of large baleen whales.
  • Are of high value as scientific and environmental reference areas.
  • Have low levels of contamination.
  • Are a region of globally important climatic processes (atmosphere - sea ice - ocean).

The Fennoscandian region

(Northern Scandinavia and Finland, Kola Peninsula/ Murmansk area, and the White Sea).

  • Is severely affected by pollution in the central Kola area (watercourses, estuaries, soil, vegetation, human health) as well as in other Kola rivers and the Pechora and Dvina.
  • Has potential for large-scale environmental disasters from improperly stored radioactive waste, petroleum development, new infrastructure and over-exploitation of biological resources.
  • Has comparatively large human populations, as well as industrial and other activities.
  • Is home to indigenous peoples.
  • Contains large areas of relatively undisturbed nature: Tundra, taiga, parts of large river ecosystems and estuaries.
  • Has large populations of naturally occurring marine and terrestrial species.

Threats and challenges


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.
  • Climatic change.
  • Ozone depletion, UV-radiation.


Three characteristics of human activities both threaten (challenge) the integrity of the European Arctic environment and provide opportunities for reconciling such activities with environmental needs:

  • 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 are more accepted in remote and 'wild' areas.

Objectives and recommendations

Long-term goals

The following long term goals are proposed for the European Arctic environment:

  • To protect and maintain the biological diversity and wildlife habitats of the area in their relatively pristine condition.
  • To protect and maintain the biological productivity of the European Arctic ecosystems as a basis for sustainable development.
  • To secure the long term environmental basis for local and indigenous peoples in the area.

Objectives and actions

Based on the current threats, future development trends and long term goals, the following objectives and actions are recommended:

Objective I

Integrate environmental concerns into the economic and industrial activities in the area, in particular in north-western Russia.

Both Russian and other European Arctic national legislation include environmental regulations and standards for most types of activities. It still remains a challenge to ensure that these are enforced and complied with, particularly in Russia.

Actions needed:

  1. Development of internationally environmental management regimes, standards, impact assessments, reporting procedures and mitigating measures.
  2. Development and international exchange of expertise on arctic environmental management and science.
  3. Establishment of economic incentives for environmentally safe operations and equipment, including insurance and taxes.
  4. Improvement of scientific data and knowledge on the European Arctic environment and impact factors. It is important to realise that ecosystem research in the Arctic in most cases is not comparable to ecosystem research in more temperate areas.
  5. Improvement of information on European Arctic environmental issues to the public and to decision makers.

Objective II

Ensure sustainable management of European Arctic marine living resources and ecosystems.

If properly co-ordinated, the existing management tools and scientific knowledge of the European Arctic countries could probably provide a sufficient basis for sustainable management of the marine resources in the area. Currently, however, these tools are insufficiently co-ordinated and partly disputed.

Actions needed:

  1. Establish internationally agreed upon management regulations, quotas, and inspection mechanisms in international and disputed waters.
  2. Improve multi-species and ecosystem management models.
  3. Enforce efficient countermeasures against over-harvesting, by-catches, and incorrect catch reporting.
  4. Reduce or remove economic incentives for unsustainable practices.

Objective III

Protect European Arctic wilderness areas and important habitats.

Large parts of the European Arctic can still be characterised as wilderness. While the northern parts of the area have many established and planned protection regulations, wilderness areas are being challenged in the north-west of the Russian Federation and Fennoscandia, and partly in Iceland.

Actions needed:

  1. Support the development and implementation of the Circumpolar Protected Areas Network (CPAN) strategy of the AEPS/Rovaniemi process.
  2. Develop national and regional co-ordinated plans for environmental management and infrastructure development in non-protected areas in order to minimise habitat fragmentation.
  3. Implement the provisions of the Biodiversity Convention at the national and regional levels in the European Arctic, including development of national strategies for conservation of biodiversity.

Objective IV

Reduce long-range transportation of pollution to the Arctic.

Some agreements restricting the production and use of certain environmentally hazardous substances are to a large degree in force (i.e. ozone depleting substances), while others (organochlorides, heavy metals, C02), are being negotiated. Economic and political interests, as well as insufficient scientific data, slow the progress of this work.

Actions needed:

  1. Research in order to identify sources, transport routes, mechanisms for, and biological effects of long range pollutants.
  2. Contribute to reducing economic incentives for the production and use of harmful substances that may be transported to the Arctic.
  3. Support the development of protocols under UN/ECE Convention on long-range Transboundary Air Pollution in order to contribute to the reduction of pollution transport to the European Arctic.
  4. Consultation with non-ECE nations whose emissions and discharges of pollutants contribute to pollution of the European Arctic.
  5. Contribute to improvement of testing and knowledge of the effect of new substances potentially harmful to the European Arctic environment.

Objective V

Ensure safe storage of radioactive wastes in the region and operation of nuclear facilities.

Radioactivity levels in the European Arctic environment are currently relatively low. Marine dumping sites and most land storage facilities and installations are recorded.

Actions needed:

  1. Contribute financially and technologically to the improvement of currently insufficient storage facilities in the European Arctic to long term safety standards.
  2. Contribute financially and technologically to maintenance, upgrading or decommissioning of unsafe nuclear facilities.
  3. Support research in order to identify potential transport routes and mechanisms for radioactive pollutants

Objective VI

Utilise the relatively intact ecosystems and low impact levels in the area as a reference for regional and global environmental monitoring, and for research to provide new knowledge on fundamental ecological processes.

Several international long term monitoring programmes are operating or being established in the European Arctic. European and other nations are currently increasing their co-operative research effort in the area.

Actions needed:

  1. Further develop long trend global and regional environmental monitoring programmes in the European Arctic, primarily based on existing and planned programmes:
    1. Climatic change (radiation, stratospheric ozone, ocean, sea ice, glacier, paleogeology and vegetation changes studies);
    2. The state of High Arctic ecosystems (marine and terrestrial);
    3. Biodiversity mapping and monitoring (species, populations, distribution).
  2. Basic studies of ecosystem functions and individual adaptations:
    1. Marine ecosystem functions in ice-free and ice-covered waters and in estuary and coastal waters;
    2. Vegetation and soil (permafrost) response to climatic change;
    3. Individual and synergistic effects of contaminants and their metabolises.

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 Acknowledgement).

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