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The Polar Regions

'The consequences of an increase in global temperatures and local changes in precipitation and snow cover are not fully understood but could be leading to the melting of polar ice caps, ice shelves and glaciers, the retreat of sea ice, sea-level rise, and the thawing of permafrost.'

GEO-2000, page 176

 Some statistics...

*  Commercial forestry has depleted and fragmented boreal forests, especially in the European Arctic. Regeneration is very slow because of the harsh climate.

*  Some of the highest values of cadmium ever recorded in birds have been found in ptarmigan from northern Norway and the Yukon Territory in Canada.

*  Radioactive isotopes occur widely in Arctic marine sediments as a result of fallout from atmospheric weapons testing, military accidents and discharges from European reprocessing plants.

*  Conservative estimates put the annual albatross mortality from fishing in the Southern Ocean at 44 000; similar problems exist in the Arctic.

*  The reported legal catch of Patagonian toothfish in the Antarctic was 10 245 tonnes whereas the illegal catch was estimated at more than 100 000 tonnes in the Indian Ocean sector of the Southern Ocean alone.

*  Exploitation of large gas and oil reserves in the Arctic has been responsible for environmental damage from blowouts, tanker spills and leakages.


The Arctic and Antarctic play a significant role in the dynamics of the global environment and act as barometers of global change. Both areas are mainly affected by events occurring outside the polar regions. Stratospheric ozone depletion has resulted in high levels of ultraviolet radiation, and polar ice caps, shelves and glaciers are melting as a result of global warming. Both areas act as sinks for persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals and radioactivity, mostly originating from other parts of the world. The contaminants accumulate in food chains and pose a health hazard to polar inhabitants. Wild flora and fauna are also affected by human activities. For example, capelin stocks have collapsed twice in the Arctic since the peak catch of 3 million tonnes in 1977. In the Southern Ocean, the Patagonian toothfish is being over-fished and there is a large accidental mortality of seabirds caught up in fishing equipment. On land, wild communities have been modified by introductions of exotic species and, particularly in northern Europe, by overgrazing of domestic reindeer.

Patagonian toothfish
The Patagonian toothfish,
Dissostichus eleginoides,
is being severely overfished

 Forest damage zones

Click image to enlarge

Extensive damage to the boreal forest in northeast Russia has been caused by sulphur and heavy metal emissions from industrial sites

In the Arctic, the end of Cold War tensions has led to new environmental cooperation. The eight Arctic countries have adopted the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy which includes monitoring and assessment, environmental emergencies, conservation of flora and fauna, and protection of the marine environment. Cooperation amongst groups of indigenous peoples has also been organized. The Antarctic environment benefits from the continuing commitment of Parties to the Antarctic Treaty aimed at reducing the chance of the region becoming a source of discord between states. The Treaty originally focussed on mineral and living resources but this focus has now shifted towards broader environmental issues. A similar shift is expected in the Arctic, within the broader context of European environmental policies. In both polar areas, limited financial resources and political attention still constrain the development and implementation of effective policies.

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