Arctic Climate Change
7. How will people and their environment be affected by Arctic warming?
- 7.1 How will indigenous people be affected?
- 7.2 What will be the effect of higher UV-radiation?
- 7.3 How can various factors interact to cause impacts on people and the environment?
7.1 How will indigenous people be affected?
Indigenous communities are facing major changes
Indigenous communities are facing major economic and cultural impacts:
The Arctic is home to numerous Indigenous Peoples whose
cultures and activities are shaped by its environment. Past
generations have skillfully adjusted harvesting activities and
lifestyles to environmental changes, but now the rapid
climate change, combined
with social, economic and political conditions, presents new
Through ways of life closely linked to their surroundings,
Indigenous Peoples have particulaly insightful ways of observing
and interpreting environmental changes. Across the Arctic,
indigenous people are already reporting
climate change effects and
noticing changes that are unprecedented in the long experience
of their Peoples.
Indigenous knowledge and observations of current
- The weather seems less stable and predictable. Hunters
and elders experienced in predicting the weather are now
frequently unable to do so.
- Snow quality and characteristics are changing and
there is more freezing rain. Hunters are increasingly unable
to build igloos, which they still rely upon for temporary or
- Sea ice is
declining, and its quality and timing are changing. The pack
ice is further from shore and often too thin to allow safe
travel for marine hunters.
- Seasonal weather patterns are changing, including more
rain in autumn and winter, and more extreme heat in summer.
Other common themes emerge from their observations:
- Water levels in many lakes are dropping.
- Species not
previously seen are now appearing in the Arctic.
- Storm surges are
causing increased erosion in coastal areas.
- The sun feels “stronger, stinging, sharp”. Sunburns
and strange skin rashes, never experienced before, are
- Climate change is
occurring faster than people can adapt.
- Climate change is strongly affecting people in many
communities, in some
cases threatening their cultural survival.
communities, the Arctic is
becoming an environment at risk.
Sea ice is less stable,
unusual weather patterns are occurring, vegetation cover is
changing, and particular animals are no longer found in
traditional hunting areas during specific seasons. Their local
surroundings are becoming unfamiliar, making people feel like
strangers in their own land.
For the Inuit of Nunavut,
the ringed seal is the single most important food source
throughout the year. The reduction and destabilization of the
sea ice has affected the
seal populations and, in
turn, polar bear populations. The increasing disappearance of
summer sea ice will have a huge impact on the Inuit as hunting,
catching and sharing seals and polar bears is as important for
their diet as for their culture.
Observed Climate Change Impacts in Sachs Harbour, Canada
7.2 What will be the effect of higher UV-radiation?
Elevated ultraviolet radiation levels will affect people, plants, and animals
ultraviolet radiation (UV)
is now reaching the Earth’s surface largely due to depletion of
the ozone layer caused by
emissions of manmade chemicals such as
CFCs over the last 50
It is worth noting that
climate change and
ozone depletion are driven
by two different mechanisms:
climate change results
from the build-up of
greenhouse gases, such
or methane, that trap heat in the lower
ozone depletion results
from the build-up of certain chlorinated chemicals that
break apart ozone molecules in the higher
Although the Montreal protocol phased out production of most
ozone-depleting chemicals, many remain
in the atmosphere for
decades and continue to destroy the
The most severe depletion has occurred in polar regions,
causing the so-called Antarctic
“ozone whole”, and a
similar, though less severe, seasonal depletion over the Arctic
in spring time. The average ozone depletion over the Arctic has
been about 7% since 1979, but there have been large seasonal and
annual variations. During seven of the past nine springs in the
Arctic, ozone depletion exceeded 25% below normal during several
weeks. On certain days levels dropped 40-45% below
The amount of UV at the Earth's surface is directly influenced
by ozone levels and to a
certain extent by clouds, the angle of the sun’s rays, altitude,
the presence of particles in the
atmosphere and how much
radiation is reflected by
the Earth’s surface. Some of these factors can also be affected
by climate change, such as
snow cover or cloud patterns. No significant improvement of the
ozone layer over the Arctic
is projected for the next few decades.
Compared to the previous generation, young people today are
likely to be exposed to 30% more UV
radiation in the course of
their lives. UV rays can contribute to skin
cancer and a number of
other health problems affecting mainly the skin and the eyes,
but also the immune system.
UV radiation can also harm materials used in construction and
other outdoor applications such as plastics or paints,
decreasing their useful life.
Plants and animals show a variety of effects from increased UV
radiation that vary widely
between species. Long-term
effects of increased UV exposure remain largely unknown.
Ozone depletion is highest
during springtime, when animals are born and plants grow most,
thus when they are most
Certain plants can increase pigmentation for protection from
increased UV levels. These pigments can make the plants less
digestible, and so affect grazing animals and thus the whole
Climate change can
contribute to increased exposure of aquatic organisms in freshwater
ecosystems to UV
radiation, for instance
through the reduction of the springtime snow and ice covers
which normally absorb UV very efficiently. However, climate
warming is likely to increase the amount in dissolved matter in
northern lakes and ponds due to increased plant growth and the
amount of sediment stirred up in the water due to
permafrost thawing. These
changes will act as a sunscreen, helping to offset the increases
in UV due to reduced snow and ice cover.
7.3 How can various factors interact to cause impacts on people and the environment?
Rovaniemi, capital of Finnish Lapland, one of the largest
cities north of the Arctic Circle
Multiple influences interact to cause impacts to people and ecosystems
Climate change in the
Arctic is taking place in the context of many other changes,
some environmental, such as chemical pollution, and others
affecting societies, such as growing
urbanization. The ability of the Arctic peoples to cope with the
impacts of climate change will be greatly affected by political,
legal, economic, social, and other factors.
Persistent organic pollutants
(POPs) and heavy metals, from agricultural and industrial
sources in other regions are carried to the Arctic by winds and
precipitation. Though the use of
persistent organic chemicals
such as DDT and PCBs (that were heavily produced in the 1960s
and 70s) has been banned in most countries, they remain present
in the environment. These substances tend to build up in
organisms along the
food chain, resulting in
high levels in polar bears, Arctic fox, and various seals,
whales, fish, seabirds, and birds of prey. Arctic
communities who eat these
animals are thus exposed to potentially harmful levels of these
Mercury is the heavy metal of greatest concern in parts of the
Arctic. Current levels pose a health risk to some Arctic people
and animals, and the persistence of mercury means that levels in
the Arctic are still increasing, despite emission reductions in
Europe and North America.
Projected changes in wind patterns, precipitation and
temperature can change the amount of
and deposited in the Arctic. Furthermore, melting of sea-ice and
glaciers can release
pollutants that had been captured in the ice over years or
decades. Changes in fish and bird migration patterns can also
accumulation in Arctic waters.
Case study of interacting changes: Saami reindeer herders
Climate change will
influence human health in the Arctic, though impacts will differ
as a result of regional differences in climate change, and
personal differences in terms of age, gender, ease of access to
resources, and health status.
Direct positive impacts on health could
include a reduction in cold-induced injuries and conditions such
as frostbite and hypothermia. Although milder winters in some
regions could reduce the number of deaths during winter months,
many winter deaths are due to respiratory infections such as
influenza, and it is unclear how higher winter temperatures
would affect influenza transmission.
Direct negative impacts on health are likely
to include increased heat-related illnesses and accidents
associated with unusual ice and weather conditions. Indirect
impacts include effects on diet, increased mental and social
stresses related to changes in the environment and lifestyle,
potential changes in
mosquito-borne disease outbreaks, changes in access to good
quality drinking water, and illnesses resulting from problems
with sanitation systems.