Arctic warming: environmental, human, and security implications.

Author:West, Mary Beth
Position:Country overview


Arctic warming has myriad implications for the Arctic environment, residents, and nations. Although definitive predictions are difficult, without question the scope and rapidity of change will test the adaptive capacities of the Arctic environment as well as its residents. Warming is affecting marine ecosystems and marine life, terrestrial ecosystems, and the animals and people who depend on them. Human impacts include effects on access to food and resources; health and wellbeing; and community cohesion, traditions, and culture. Increased shipping and resource activity create the need for additional maritime presence and security; better environmental and safety regulations; peaceful resolution of boundary disputes and jurisdictional issues; and increased homeland security, law enforcement, immigration, public health, and related activities. The response to many of these challenges must be international and cooperative, should involve indigenous voices, and can be accomplished within existing legal and institutional frameworks by strengthening institutions and developing legally binding measures in several specific areas such as the regulation of shipping, oil and gas activity, and fishing for the purposes of safety, security, and ecosystem protection.

TABLE OF CONTENTS I. INTRODUCTION II. ENVIRONMENTAL IMPLICATIONS A. Melting Ice and Sea Level Rise B. Changes in Weather and Precipitation C. Thawing Permafrost D. Arctic Freshwater Systems E. Terrestrial Ecosystems: Forests and Farms F. Flora and Fauna III. HUMAN IMPLICATIONS A. Access to Food and Resources B. Health C. Community Cohesion, Traditions, and Culture D. Importance of Indigenous Wisdom E. Case Study: Indigenous Perspectives from Kotzebue, Alaska IV. IMPLICATIONS FOR NATIONAL SECURITY A. Marine and Territorial Security B. Energy Security C. Environmental and Human Security V. LEGAL AND INSTITUTIONAL ISSUES A. Current Legal and Institutional Framework B. Need for New Arrangements or Agreements IV. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

Arctic warming in the Arctic is having and will continue to have myriad implications for the Arctic environment, residents, and nations. Changes may be both negative and positive. The complexity of interacting factors affecting the Arctic and the fact that much is still unknown about the operation of climate and environmental systems in the region make definitive predictions difficult. Without question, however, the rapid change brought about by warming will test the adaptive capacities of both the Arctic environment and its residents, communities, and nations. This Article contains a general description of the types of expected effects on the Arctic environment, the social and economic well-being of its people, and the security of Arctic nations.


    During the twentieth century, air temperatures over Arctic land areas increased by up to 5[degrees]C. (1) According to the Arctic Council's 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), (2) during the twenty-first century, under a moderate emissions scenario, average annual temperatures in Alaska and western Canada are expected to rise by 3-5[degrees]C (5-9[degrees]F) over land and up to 7[degrees]C (13[degrees]F) over the oceans. (3) Winter temperatures are expected to rise even more: 4-7[degrees]C (7-13[degrees]F) over land and 7-10[degrees]C (13-18[degrees]F) over the oceans. (4) The more recent 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC Report) predicts an averaged warming in the Arctic of 2[degrees]C to about 9[degrees]C by the year 2100. (5) The increase in temperature will have significant effects on the oceans, sea ice, permafrost, forests, freshwater lakes and rivers, and flora and fauna in the region. (6)

    Warming is more rapid and intense in the Arctic than in other areas of the globe due to unique conditions in the region. Melting snow and ice reduce reflectivity levels, causing more sunlight to be absorbed as heat and less sunlight to be reflected. (7) In addition, the thawing of the permafrost is likely to lead to additional greenhouse gas emissions. (8) These and other related factors, such as Arctic cloud feedback, not only create intensified warming in the Arctic region but also have implications for the global climate system. (9)

    Warming in the Arctic, however, is not uniform. According to the ACIA, observational data from the scientific record--supported by indigenous observations--indicate that some areas such as Alaska, western Canada, and Eurasia are warming more than others (e.g., eastern Canada, Greenland, and the northwest Atlantic). (10) Effects of warming also differ within regions according to the geography, ecology, and related circumstances of various areas. (11) To be most effective, therefore, responses must reflect the particular circumstances of each place.

    1. Melting Ice and Sea Level Rise

      Melting ice and freshwater flowing into polar oceans have a direct effect on sea levels. "Over the past 30 years, the annual average sea-ice extent has decreased by about 8%, or nearly one million-square kilometers, an area larger than all of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark (or Texas and Arizona) combined...." (12) "Sea-ice extent in summer has declined more ... than the annual average, with a loss of 15-20% of late-summer ice coverage." (13) Moreover, the melting trend is accelerating. "Additional declines of 10-50% in annual average sea-ice extent are projected by 2100," with summer sea ice projected to decline more than 50% by late this century and some models showing a complete disappearance of summer sea ice during this period. (14)

      Global average sea level rise has been about eight centimeters (three inches) in the past twenty years--an amount that is projected to increase to 10-90 centimeters (four inches to three feet) during this century. (15) Models indicate that the Greenland ice sheet may eventually melt completely, resulting in a sea level rise of as much as twenty-three feet. (16) Scientists also note the possibility that changes in ocean chemistry caused by melting ice and increasing flow from Arctic freshwater systems into the oceans could eventually affect ocean conveyor systems, which convey warm water from the tropics northward and are critical to the stability of the Earth's climate. (17)

      These changes have a number of secondary effects. Perhaps the most direct is their effect on marine ecosystems. For example, warmer water and related runoff from land and rivers may alter ocean chemistry and ecology, (18) creating increased risk of infestations; affecting fish, marine mammals, and animals that are dependent on sea ice for feeding and daily activities; and potentially harming the people who depend on those marine life and animals for subsistence. (19) "As the sea ice edge moves farther north, the distribution of crustaceans ... adapted for life at the sea ice edge and fish ... that forage on them shifts accordingly," affecting predators that are dependent on sea ice for feeding and breeding. (20) Ringed seals, walruses, and polar bears, which use sea ice as feeding and resting platforms, and bowhead whales, which are dependent on sea ice organisms for food, are among those affected (21); in fact, polar bears were designated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008. (22)

      While melting ice and related changes create significant stress for some marine species and their predators, the impacts on Arctic fisheries will be regionally specific--in some cases beneficial and in others detrimental. (23) As a general matter, warming is causing a change from Arctic to Subarctic conditions in the marine environment, as a pelagic-dominated marine ecosystem previously in the southeastern Bering Sea moves northward. (24) Some fishing communities may thus experience beneficial effects as increasing areas of open water bring to the Arctic more commercial fish stocks, such as cod and herring in the north Atlantic and walleye pollock in the Bering Sea. (25) On the other hand, some coldwater species, such as shrimp and king crab, may suffer habitat loss and become less plentiful. (26) In addition, the movement of fish stocks and other marine life into new areas will affect the interrelationships among components of ecosystems in new ways; for example, as salmon sharks move farther north into the Bering Sea, they may compete for resources with threatened marine mammals such as the Steller Sea Lion. (27) As a general matter, the complex interactions in food webs may generate secondary effects that are not always easy to predict.

      In addition to its effects on the marine ecosystem, loss of sea ice also affects activities on land. In many areas, sea ice forms a barrier for the coast, protecting it from waves and surges. (28) When that barrier disappears, ocean activity can lead to severe erosion, sedimentation, and related damage to coastal communities and areas. (29) For example, the small island of Nelson Lagoon in the Pribilofs has for years battled effects of winter storms by building increasingly strong break walls along the shore. (30) The walls were designed to brace shore ice, which would in turn provide a buffer from winter storm wave action. (31) Because the sea ice buffer has been lost, however, the full force of waves now surges against the wall, leading to breaks in some sections that have caused harm to the village. (32) Vital infrastructure has also been disrupted: a storm in 2000 caused a breach in a pipeline carrying drinking water to the village. (33)

      Furthermore, as has been widely reported and discussed, sea level rise over time will have devastating impacts on islands and low-lying coastal areas, including communities close to the sea.

    2. Changes in Weather and Precipitation

      Weather, in general, has become more variable and less predictable by traditional means. (34) For example, elders in Kotzebue, Alaska, have reported that weather may vary as much as...

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