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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 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 challenges.

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 trends:

  • The weather seems less stable and predictable. Hunters and elders experienced in predicting the weather are now frequently unable to do so. Read quotes
  • 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 emergency shelters. Read quotes
  • 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. Read quotes
  • Seasonal weather patterns are changing, including more rain in autumn and winter, and more extreme heat in summer. Read quotes

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 becoming common.
  • 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.

For Indigenous 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. More...

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

More 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 years.

It is worth noting that climate change and ozone depletion are driven by two different mechanisms:

  • Human-induced climate change results from the build-up of greenhouse gases, such as CO2 or methane, that trap heat in the lower atmosphere.
  • Human-induced ozone depletion results from the build-up of certain chlorinated chemicals that break apart ozone molecules in the higher atmosphere.

Although the Montreal protocol phased out production of most ozone-depleting chemicals, many remain in the atmosphere for decades and continue to destroy the ozone layer. More...

7.2.1 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 normal.

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. More...

7.2.2 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. More...

7.2.3 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 vulnerable.

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 food web.

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. More...

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
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 populations and 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. More...

7.3.1 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 pollutants.

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 contaminants transported 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 affect contaminant accumulation in Arctic waters. More...

Case study of interacting changes: Saami reindeer herders

7.3.2 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 bacterial and viral growth, mosquito-borne disease outbreaks, changes in access to good quality drinking water, and illnesses resulting from problems with sanitation systems. More...

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