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Arctic Climate Change

1. Introduction: Global climate change and the Arctic region

  • 1.1 How is the global climate changing?
  • 1.2 What makes up the Arctic region?
  • 1.3 Who is living in the Arctic region?

1.1 How is the global climate changing?

Evidence of climatic conditions in the distant past has established a link between rising atmospheric CO2 levels and rising global temperatures. Such evidence is for instance obtained from ice cores extracted from polar ice caps or glaciers that formed from the gradual buildup of snow throughout the years.

Over the last two centuries, the world’s global mean temperature has increased by 0.6°C (1°F) and it seems that the current trend goes beyond the natural climate variability. In the Arctic, average temperatures have risen almost twice as fast as in the rest of the world and climate changes are being felt particularly intensely. This warming is attributed in good part to human activities. Indeed, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has increased by 35% since the industrial revolution, mostly due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and the clearing of land. Continuing greenhouse gas releases are projected to cause significant changes in climatic conditions: an increase of 1.4 to 5.8°C (2.5-10.4°F) in global average temperature between 2000 and 2100, as well as changes in ocean currents, sea level and in the amount and distribution of precipitation. Such changes would have significant impacts on human communities as well as ecosystems.

About 80% of the world’s growing energy demand is met by burning fossil fuels, which causes a long-lasting increase of CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Therefore, altering the warming trend will be a slow process, even if concerted efforts to reduce emissions are made today. More...

1.2 What makes up the Arctic region?

The Arctic, Earth’s northern polar region, is an ocean surrounded by land. Snow and ice cover much of the Arctic land and sea surfaces, particularly at the far north. The southernmost part of the Arctic, which includes the northern part of North America and Eurasia, is covered by boreal forests, separated from the icy North by a wide expanse of tundra.

The Arctic Circle is the line around the globe, north of which the sun does not rise at winter solstice or set below at summer solstice – “the land of the midnight sun”. In this assessment, the Arctic refers not only to the area north of the Arctic circle but also to regions further south that interact with the rest of the Arctic Ecosystem. In other contexts , other criteria such as northern treeline, climatic boundaries, the area of land covered by permafrost, or the area of ocean covered by sea ice are sometimes used to define the boundaries of ‘the Arctic’.

The far north of the Arctic is home to an array of plants, animals and people uniquely adapted to surviving in some of the most extreme conditions on the planet. Increasingly rapid climate change poses additional challenges to life in the Arctic. Moreover, populations and ecosystems are being increasingly disturbed by other factors linked to human activities such as habitat change, growing resource use, population growth, and air and water pollution. More...

1.3 Who is living in the Arctic region?

Today the Arctic region is home to almost 4 million people, a majority of which are non-indigenous settlers. They live in cities, work as hunters or animal herders in rural areas, or are involved in the exploitation of other natural resources. Indigenous people make up roughly 10% of the population of the Arctic and they continue to carry out traditional activities while adapting to the modern way of life.

The Arctic includes part of eight nations: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark (i.e. Greenland), Iceland, Canada, Russia, and the United States. People have occupied parts of the Arctic at least since the peak of the last ice age (around 20 000 years ago). Innovations such as the harpoon and reindeer husbandry allowed the exploitation of food sources and made it possible to live in remote areas where the land was largely barren. Over the past thousand years, in Eurasia and across the North Atlantic, new groups of people moved northward, colonizing new lands and interacting with indigenous populations, for instance in West Greenland and northern Eurasia.

The non-indigenous population currently outnumbers the indigenous population in most regions, due to an increase in immigration in the 20th century. This population increase and the incompatibility of some aspects of traditional and modern ways of life has given rise to conflicts over land and resources. In North America, the claims of indigenous people have been addressed to some extent by political and economic actions such as the creation of largely self-governed regions like the Nunavut Territory, in Canada. In Eurasia, by contrast, indigenous claims and rights have only begun to be addressed as matters of national policy in recent years.

Northern regions are becoming more tightly related to national mainstreams – economically, politically, and socially. Some of the differences in terms of living standards, income and education are decreasing between northern and southern Arctic communities. On the one hand, there have been certain improvements, such as an increase in life expectancy, but on the other hand there have been some negative consequences to the coming together of these different cultures. With continuing changes, it is feared that certain indigenous languages will soon disappear. Economically, the region depends largely on natural resources such as oil, gas, metal ores, fish, reindeer, and birds. In recent decades, tourism has become an important sector of the economy in many Arctic regions. More...

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