United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Global Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version

Chapter 2: Regional Perspectives

[ GEO-1: Home | Complete Report | Search | Feedback | Order Book | Collaborating Centres | About GEO Reports ]

Polar Regions

The Arctic

Major Environmental Concerns

[ Land Degradation | Forests | Biodiversity | Marine and Ice Edge Ecosystems | Ozone Depletion | Chemical Pollution | Arctic Population ]

Land Degradation in the Tundra

The mainland of the Arctic is dominated by tundra with taiga, or boreal forest, in the southern parts of the region. Other major land cover types include alpine and high mountain areas, broad-leaved forests in coastal areas and valleys, as well as marshes and glaciers.

The tundra are the vast treeless plains of the Arctic. Due to low temperatures, permafrost, low bacterial activity, and almost complete lack of invertebrate soil fauna, biological material is decomposed slowly in tundra areas. Nutrients are thus not readily available for new plant growth. The result is low production, slow plant growth, and slow revegetation where vegetation has been damaged or removed (EEA/NPI, 1996).

The natural factor that most strongly determines the landscape character in the far north is permafrost. Where there is continuous permafrost, the ground is frozen up to a depth of 400 metres. During the summer, melting only occurs to a depth of about 1 metre, which creates a poorly drained often marshy landscape intersected by dry ridges (EEA/NPI 1996).

The low production of the terrestrial ecosystems makes the Arctic tundra particularly sensitive to land degradation and erosion. Annual melting of the topsoil above the permafrost layer combined with damage to the vegetation cover by human activities can lead to erosion. This process is further exacerbated by slow vegetation regrowth. In northern Scandinavia, herding of reindeers has also led to overgrazing and subsequent erosion. Sulphur dioxide emissions from nickel smelters have also led to vegetation damage and subsequent erosion, as, for example, on the western part of the Kola Peninsula (Tommervik et al., 1995).


The taiga is a zone of coniferous forest encircling the northern hemisphere south of the permafrost line. It represents an important commercial resource in the Russian Federation, Finland, and Sweden. The plant and animal species composition is relatively uniform throughout the taiga. The taiga forest basically consists of one canopy layer with an undervegetation of dwarf shrubs, mainly of the heather family, crowberry, and mosses and lichens. Broad-leaved deciduous forests are found in the areas of warmer and more oceanic climates. A characteristic feature of the boreal zone is the formation of peatlands (bogs), which develop in wet areas due to poor drainage and incomplete decomposition of plant material. Iceland had large forests before the arrival of the first settlers in the early Middle Ages. Gradual but steady deforestation and extensive sheep and horse herding have since practically cleared the entire island of forests. In the Russian Federation, large-scale clear cutting and plantation forest monoculture are environmental concerns. Landscapes are altered, the local climate is affected, the natural diversity of the forests is disrupted, and bogs and marshes are often drained in the process of planting new forest stands. The new stands are usually single species of uniform age (EEA/NPI, 1996).


A relatively small number of terrestrial species is able to survive the strong climatic contrasts of the Arctic year, characterized by long, cold, dark winters and short, light summers. Only a few species live in the tundra areas through the winter. Other species migrate into the region for the summer season only.

Arctic plants generally have reduced exposed leaf areas (needles or small narrow leaves) or shed their leaves during winter to increase survival when available moisture is very low. In the High Arctic, most plants have developed low and creeping structures more suitable for survival where cold, drying, and damaging winds are prevalent. Bowl-shaped flowers and hairy stems are also common because these features help to capture and retain heat from the sun. In general, the plants have low growth rates, low production capacities, inefficient sexual production, and simple distribution mechanisms. Growth and production decreases from south to north (EEA/NPI, 1996).

Animals face many of the same challenges for surviving in the Arctic. Whether living permanently in the region or visiting for parts of the year, the animals of the Arctic have special adaptations. Both marine and terrestrial mammals have large body-volume-to-surface ratios and store considerable amounts of fat (for example, as in seals, whales, and polar bears). The mammals, as well as birds, are quite mobile with some exceptions such as the Svalbard reindeer, which are extremely sedentary. Many of the animals are long-lived, reproducing often but having few young at a time. This increases the chances of successful reproduction in a situation of high mortality of the young (EEA/NPI, 1996).

Because of the harsh climatic conditions on land, the biodiversity of the region is relatively poor. However, several interesting and important species are endemic or strongly influence the terrestrial ecosystems. These include, for example, the lemming and other rodents, reindeer species, arctic fox, wolverine, wolf, lynx, and brown and polar bears. Some of these species are endangered. In addition, some of the world's largest populations of sea birds are found in the Arctic.

Although listings of Arctic species may appear substantial, the number of species in any given area is usually limited. The diversity and complexity of food webs increase as arctic ecosystems grade into more temperate ecosystems. Because of the relatively low diversity, some food chains are short and simple. An example is the lichen-caribou-wolf chain in Arctic Canada. This food chain is of particular concern as a potential pathway of contaminants because of the importance of caribou and reindeer as a traditional food source for Northerners.

By comparison, the marine environment is far more productive. The North Atlantic waters are among the most productive areas of the world due to the inflow of warmer, nutrient-rich water from the southern Atlantic, the influx of Arctic water bringing nutrient-rich water from ice-covered areas, and considerable vertical blending on the banks in the shallow waters (EEA/NPI, 1996). The nutrient-rich water masses, together with 24-hour sunlight in the summer, support a large production of biomass, such as algae, that are consumed by higher trophic animals and eventually by top predators, including humans.

The region's marine ecosystems are characterized by large stocks of a few key plankton, crustacean, and fish species as well as sea birds and large sea mammals. Capelin, cod, and herring are the largest fish stocks (EEA/NPI, 1996). High natural fluctuations in fish stocks and other species are typical of the region. The more stable benthic (sea bed) ecosystems are rich in species. For example, the Barents Sea and adjacent areas contain 2,000 species of benthic animals, constituting 80-90 per cent of the total number of marine animal species in the area (EEA/NPI, 1996).

Fishing, whaling, and other sea mammal hunting are well-known examples of overexploitation of Arctic resources. Massive hunting of the marine mammals started in the early 1600s. The bowhead whale was practically driven to extinction between 1600 and 1700; the blue whale, fin whale, humpback whale, and sei whale populations were drastically reduced between the mid-1800s and 1920; and the smaller minke whale has been exploited from the 1930s. Walrus and harp and hooded seals were hunted from the early 1800s up to the 1980s. By the 1900s, the survival of the popular polar bear was dangerously threatened throughout the European Arctic area. In the past three decades, overfishing and the decline of certain fish stocks have led to conflicts among nations regarding access and management of resources.

All countries in the region have established protected areas. As of 1995, there were 285 such areas. (See Figure 2.25.) They covered approximately 2.1 million square kilometres, or a little over 14 per cent of the Arctic area (CAFF, 1996b). Some of the first nature protection areas of the Arctic were established in Sweden and Alaska in 1909. The largest protected area is the Northeast Greenland National Park (972,000 square kilometres). This park, which is mainly ice cap, makes up about half of the protected area total. The majority of the protected areas cover terrestrial ecosystems; the marine areas are poorly represented.

Marine and Ice Edge Ecosystems

Ice edges and associated waters are key areas of productivity in all regions of the Arctic (Smith and Sakshaug, 1990). Melting ice causes an increase in the stability of the water column, which allows phytoplankton to be retained (phytoplankton bloom) in a defined active photosynthetic layer at the ice edge (Marshall, 1957). Contaminants that accumulate on the sea ice surface are released to sea surface waters when the ice melts. Most melting and subsequent particle/contaminant release occurs in the marginal ice zone where biological activity is concentrated in surface waters. Fauna associated with the ice edge form an important pathway for contaminants to enter the food web between primary producers and fish, sea birds, and mammals (Futsaeter et al., 1991).

Ozone Depletion

Although the ozone layer over the Arctic has been depleted recently, there have been no "holes in the ozone layer" comparable to those over the Antarctic region. In the spring of 1995, however, stratospheric ozone concentrations over Europe were 10-12 per cent lower than in the mid-1970s, and over North America, 5-10 per cent lower. From January to March 1995, the ozone layer was reduced by as much as 35 per cent over Russian Siberia (SFT, 1996). The Arctic winter in 1994-95 was exceptionally cold, and ozone concentrations were 20-30 per cent below normal. The winter of 1995-96 was even colder. This unexpected recurrence of cold winter temperatures may in itself be due to cumulative ozone destruction or possibly climate change; in either case, ozone losses over the northern hemisphere may be more severe than anticipated in the near future.

The intensity of ultraviolet-B radiation (UV-B) has increased accordingly; 1992-93 saw the first reported examples of persistentincreases over densely populated regions in the northern hemisphere, posing a threat to primary plant and animal plankton productivity and human health in terms of increased risk of skin cancer and other health problems (UNEP, 1994).

Chemical Pollution in the Arctic Region

Measurements indicate that pollutants, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), heavy metals, radionuclides, and acidifying gases, are transported to the Arctic by the atmospheric, riverine, and ocean pathways. The Commonwealth of Independent States countries, Europe, North America, and Japan are the main sources for these long-range transported pollutants. Trends in measurements of chemicals such as DDT and toxaphene in the region indicate that developing countries, where these chemicals are still in use, also contribute to the presence of these pollutants in the Arctic region (Canadian Dept. of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, personal communication, 1996).

Although the concentration of many pollutants tends to be low in the Arctic environment, there are notable exceptions. Elevated concentrations of certain heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury have been found in Arctic sea birds, fish, and marine mammals. The levels of POPs are also high in Arctic species like the polar bear, as well as in other marine mammals. Because fish and marine mammals are a major food source for indigenous peoples in the region, the toxic contaminants they contain pose a human health risk (PAME, 1996).

Radioactive contamination is considered one of the main threats to the Arctic environment in spite of low current levels of contamination and sharp falls in caesium-137 levels in both the North and the Barents seas since the 1980s (Strand and Cooke, 1995). The main sources of radioactivity are the French La Hague and British Sellafield reprocessing plants and global fallout from atmospheric tests in the 1950s and 1960s. There are additional inputs and risks from Russia, including contamination from the Chernobyl accident, earlier dumping of liquid and solid radioactive waste, minor leakages from installation and dumping sites, and improper storage and management of spent fuel from both civil and military sources. Waste management is also an issue in the Canadian north where, prior to land use regulations, waste was abandoned with little concern for the environment. Military installations, exploration camps, and mines were the main source of these wastes (Canadian Dept. of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, personal communication, 1996).

During the cold war, the Arctic Ocean represented one of the main frontiers between the West and East. The ice-covered Arctic Ocean was a superb area for hiding submarines with strategic nuclear weapons. The Kola region in north-west Russia, the only ice-free harbour to the Atlantic, still houses the largest concentration of nuclear vessels and weapons in the world. After the end of the cold war there was a lack of resources to manage these installations. Radioactive materials were released accidentally or through leakages from these installations as well as from plants further south (Tomsk and Mayak), draining northwards. These, together with solid waste dumped into shallow waters in the Kara Sea, all represent threats to the Arctic environment, its people, and its fisheries (EEA/NPI, 1996).

Onshore and offshore exploration of oil and gas, and their transportation through pipelines and by ships, represent a risk to the region's environment. The continued use of outdated technology in some areas exacerbates this risk. The expected large onshore and offshore oil reserves of Siberia are one key area for exploration both by western and Russian companies (PAME, 1996; EPPR, 1996). The Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska and the oil spill in the Komi Republic of Russia are examples of accidental damage caused by oil-related activities. Decomposition of hydrocarbons is slower in the cold Arctic climate compared with warmer areas. This provides extra time for released contaminants to spread and extends the time that they can have an impact on the environment.

Arctic Population

The total human population in the Arctic currently exceeds 3.5 million. The indigenous population constitutes approximately 80 per cent of the total population in Greenland, 50 per cent in Arctic Canada, 15 per cent in Alaska and Arctic Norway, and a smaller proportion in the rest of the Arctic countries (AMAP, 1996). Due to improving living conditions through socio-economic development, the population growth rates in many parts of the Arctic are rising and the population is generally young (AMAP, 1996). At the same time, a number of northern regions in Russia have lost 20-30 per cent of their population during the 1990s due to emigration, a decreased birth rate, and increased mortality (Goskomstat of Russia, 1995).

The indigenous peoples of the north have traditionally survived on a sustainable system of hunting and herding the local fauna. Today, many of the local inhabitants are increasing the level of resource exploitation to supplement their income and are involved in new and non-traditional activities, such as industrial processing and tourist services. Purely traditional life-styles are tending to disappear as indigenous people adopt "southern" life-styles to a greater or lesser extent. These are accompanied by changes in food and dwelling habits, education, and health care.

Differences between the local and introduced cultures are levelling out in some areas, most notably in the Nordic countries. In other areas, however, such as in the Arctic regions of the Russian Federation, there have been decreases or withdrawal of centralized subsidies for traditional economies. These economic changes are imposing hardships on the local populations and consequently on the environment on which they depend for much of their livelihood. Overall, there is a growing recognition of traditional values among the Arctic peoples themselves, among national Governments, and among international Arctic organizations. Increasingly, such values are being addressed in various programmes, including those operating under the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy.

Continue to next section...

[ GEO-1: Home | Complete Report | Search | Feedback | Order Book | Collaborating Centres | About GEO Reports ]