The Arctic is undergoing environmental, social, cultural, economic and political changes that are in many ways interlinked. In some places, the changes are very fast and big.
Changes in the Arctic are linked to global developments. An integrated global economy, climate change and pollution threaten Arctic nature, affecting the living conditions of the region and, for example, the livelihoods based on nature. On the other hand, economic development can also open up new opportunities for the people of the area.
Amidst these changes, it is important to ensure the ecological, economic, cultural and social sustainability of the Arctic. Ecological sustainability means safeguarding ecosystems and preserving biodiversity. Economic, social and cultural sustainability focus on promoting people's well-being.
Arctic fox puppies in Yamal, Russia. Photo: Bruce Forbes
Indigenous species in difficulty
Plants and animals respond differently to climate change, ranging from rapid reactions to slower adaptation. Rapid reactions include, for example, behavioural changes and slower adaptation includes, for example, changes in reproduction.
Many species living in the Arctic have adapted to harsh living conditions in a way that limits their response to climate change and other environmental changes. For example, low-growing Arctic plants are easily overshadowed by higher species spreading further south, and the small-sized Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) does not survive the fox spreading from the south. As new species move from the south to the north, the indigenous species in the region are in difficulty. Terrestrial flora and fauna cannot move much further north because they are facing the Arctic Ocean.
The number of birds is decreasing alarmingly in the Arctic regions. A connection between so-called greening of Arctic regions and increased bird nest predation has been found in a study done in Finnmark, Northern Norway. One leading hypothesis why birds migrate to Arctic is the lower predation risk compared to southern regions
With global warming, migratory birds will arrive in their Arctic nesting grounds earlier. Spring migration - especially of first-time migrants - has also been brought forward in Lapland in recent decades. Diurnal butterflies are occurring further north in Finland: their distribution area has moved north on an average 60 kilometres in a decade. For example, the silver-washed fritillary (Argynnis paphia) used to occur mainly in south-eastern Finland, but now it occurs all the way up to Rovaniemi.
Above zero temperatures and rainfall in winter cause icy layers in the snow. They make it difficult for reindeer to feed, which increases their mortality. The number of wild reindeer and caribou (Rangifer tarandus) have fallen by 50 % in 20 years (Arctic Climate Change Update 2019).
The polar bear has adapted to life in the cold. Photo: Peter Prokosch, , www.grida.no
The symbol of climate change
Although many animals are affected by climate change, the polar bear (Ursus maritimus), has become a symbol of climate change because its life is threatened by climate change. The polar bear only occurs in the Arctic.
The polar bear's most important habitat is sea ice, where it preys on seals throughout the year. Changes in the predation and ice conditions affect the feeding, movement and reproduction of polar bears. Changes in snow conditions, for their part, affect the breeding conditions of polar bears.
- The Arctic is warming three times faster than the global average (AMAP Arctic Climate Change Update 2021).
- The ozone-depleting substances (ODS) have been an important factor for the rapid warming of the Arctic (Nature Climate Change 2020). That’s because they have a very strong greenhouse warming effect, not due to the ozone hole they cause. Climate model indicators shows that, when ODS are kept fixed during the period 1955-2005, the warming of the Arctic would be only half to what it is now.
- Global warming will have a major impact on life Earth.
- Global warming will facilitate access to Arctic natural resources and sea routes.
Extensive areas of the Arctic are covered with snow, ice and permafrost throughout the year. As the climate warms, the snow and ice cover area shrink and the permafrost area shrinks, which in turn accelerates global warming. Arctic air temperatures have risen by an average of 3.1°C between 1971 and 2019. Temperatures have risen especially in winter. (Arctic Climate Change Update 2021).
Snow reflects solar radiation. Photo: Risto Viitanen
Sea ice is decreasing
The Arctic Ocean is only about 3 percent of the world's oceans, but accounts for about 14 percent of the carbon capture of the seas in the world. To date, little is known about the effects of the decrease of sea ice on carbon cycle. (see Finnish Environment Institute). Sea ice levels have fallen by 43 % since 1979 if you make the comparisons in September, when sea ice is at its lowest (Arctic Climate Change Update 2021).
Because snow and ice reflect the sun's warming radiation much more efficiently (80-90%) than bare land and water areas (less than 10%), when their surface area decreases, this accelerates global warming. The open sea releases heat and moisture into the atmosphere. Coasts without ice cover are prone to erosion.
Greenland has the world's second largest glacier. The picture shows the capital Nuuk. Photo: Outi Mähönen.
The melting of glaciers and permafrost is accelerating
The melting of sea ice does not raise the sea level, but the melting of the ice sheet does. Greenland's vast continental glacier is 2 to 3 kilometres thick in its central parts. Studies have shown that the melting of Arctic glaciers has caused 30 percent of sea level rise between 1992 and 2017 (Arctic Climate Change Update 2019). Melting glaciers are raising sea levels all over the world.
Arctic soil accounts for up to half of the Earth's carbon stock (Arctic Climate Change Update 2019). In particular, permafrost thawing releases large quantities of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, which accelerate climate change. The advancing treeline and growing shrubs are both signs of global warming and also a factor that accelerates global warming.
Melting of the permafrost can also emerge bacteria and viruses that are dangerous both to animals and humans. Studies have shown that bacteria and viruses frozen in the environment can remain viable for thousands and even millions of years. A serious anthrax outbreak happened among reindeer in Yamal in 2016.
The changes must be considered as a whole
Arctic research has realized that climate change, its effects and adaptation to it need to be considered broadly as part of the socio-economic changes in the region. As the climate warms, the Arctic's natural resources and sea routes become easier to exploit, which in turn poses threats to the environment and traditional lifestyles.
There are major environmental risks associated with drilling for oil in the Arctic seas. Remedying oil spill damage is difficult in Arctic conditions and the Arctic recovers slowly. In addition, the use of fossil fuels will further accelerate the climate. According to some estimates, most of the known fossil reserves should be left unused in order to achieve the goals of the climate agreements.
The common challenge for the Arctic is to transform short-term economic exploitation of natural resources into long-term economic development that is environmentally and socially sustainable.
The Northwest Passage (pictured) and the Northeast Passage are Arctic sea routes. Photo: Ari Laakso
The everyday life in the Arctic is changing
Arctic livelihoods such as reindeer herding, and tourism are closely linked to nature.
Photo: Arto Vitikka
Unlike plants and animals, we humans can control the climate change caused by our actions. Above all, it requires commitment to common goals such as international climate agreements. Even if mitigation is successful, climate change will still affect people's lives and ways of life in the Arctic region.
In the Arctic region, weather conditions vary greatly depending on the season. As the climate warms, the annual cycle changes and the local traditional knowledge no longer applies. In the Arctic, the lifestyle and livelihoods are often linked to nature. Hunting, fishing, reindeer herding, and tourism are very dependent on the environment and weather conditions.
Challenges to movement and housing
Moving on ice becomes more difficult as the water bodies freeze later in the autumn and melt earlier in the spring. Movement on the ice is more difficult as the water bodies freeze later in the autumn and melt earlier in the spring. In Greenland, for example, the thinning and thawing of sea ice make it difficult to move, hunt or fish.
Erosion is a major problem on the Arctic coasts of North America, where permafrost is melting and the sea is without ice cover longer than before (see research from Herschel Island or Qikiqtaruk, Canada). Dozens of indigenous villages are threatened by the shoreline collapse. Many villages have voted in favour of relocating their villages but have not received sufficient funding for the relocation.
Population, roads, railways, oil pipelines and industry are all threatened by the thawing of permafrost, because the ground collapses as the ice melts. Deep craters resulting from methane hydrate escaping into atmosphere have been observed in Siberia. A sudden eruption could cause great destruction near a settlement or on an oil and gas field.
Winners or losers?
Climate change will increase economic inequality. Studies estimate that global warming will increase economic growth at the higher latitudes, but that the economy will suffer lower latitudes. Arctic countries such as Iceland, Finland and Norway are estimated to be among the "winners" of climate change from an economic point of view.
On the other hand, there are also risks that can turn financial gains into losses. As the Arctic's natural resources and sea routes become more accessible, their exploitation poses a threat to the environment that recovers slowly as well as to the inhabitants. For example, drilling for oil in the Arctic poses major environmental risks.