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Composed of the northernmost residents of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, and Russia, the arctic’s population of 4 million is a heterogeneous blend of indigenous groups and immigrants, both utilizing the region’s natural resources in mixed subsistence and cash-based economies. Together they sparsely populate an extreme environment characterized by tundra vegetation or boreal forests bordered by oceans teeming with wildlife. Indigenous arctic peoples such as the Aleut (Unangan), Yupik, Athabascan, and Inupiaq of Alaska; the Inuit of Canada and Greenland; the Saami of Scandinavia; and the Yakut, Yukagirs, Chukchi, and Evenks of Siberia were traditionally small nomadic groups who moved seasonally in pursuit of wildlife resources such as sea mammals, fish, and birds, as well as land mammals such as caribou, moose, and bear. These groups have always been renowned for their remarkable adaptive abilities in a challenging environment to which they are both economically and culturally connected.
Today, arctic residents live in diverse settings ranging from small villages of less than 100 people to large cities such as Murmansk in Siberia, which has a population of over 300,000. All communities are tied in some way, however, to the region’s rich natural resources and industries based upon the exploitation of minerals, fish, and timber. Indigenous arctic populations are increasingly feeling the pressure of industrial expansion and resource extraction in their territories, as well as an influx of both migrant labor and tourists. All arctic residents of the 21st century now face dual concerns in the large-scale industrial extraction of their natural resources to meet the needs of a burgeoning global economy and in the spectre of the warming trends currently indicative of climate change predictions.
Cold Facts on Conservation
Mining of nonrenewable resources such as gold, copper, iron, oil, coal, and natural gas provides the majority of revenue generated from arctic industries. Oil and gas extraction and refining in particular are vitally important industries in the arctic, but also stimulate debate over conservation concerns of some of the most environmentally pristine areas of the world, such as in the dispute over oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Overfishing of both the North Pacific and North Atlantic is also a contested issue for the arctic region, because not only does it put wildlife populations at risk, it also endangers traditional lifestyles based upon both subsistence and commercial fishing. Corporate fishing enterprises have been rapidly replacing small boat fisheries on the arctic coast since the 1970s, and challenge the existence of some coastal communities that are precluded from participation by restrictive access legislation. Large-scale deforestation of Siberia’s boreal forests since the disintegration of the Soviet Union is also at issue in not only changing the arctic landscape, but also in the more global concern of contributing to atmospheric warming by eliminating carbon sinks.
According to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment organization, climate change in the arctic will subject arctic residents in the future to changing weather patterns, melting of sea ice, rising sea levels and coastal erosion, thawing of permafrost, and changes in vegetation, as well as the appearance of new wildlife species or disappearance of others. Changing weather patterns make traditional methods of weather prediction more difficult as the frequency of storms increases, in addition to the potential for disasters caused by both slides and avalanches. Melting sea ice directly impacts the viability of marine mammal populations that use it for a habitat.
However, while climate change places some constraints on arctic peoples, it might also engender opportunities such as the opening of northerly trade routes with a reduction in sea ice. In addition, in some areas, the introduction of new species such as more northerly runs of Pacific salmon would be welcomed changes for some arctic peoples and industries. Traditional livelihoods would alter in other ways, however, such as with a northward shift of the boreal forest, which could result in an expansion of the timber industry. However, this would also entail a reduction in tundra, which would in turn affect traditional pasturelands of arctic reindeer and caribou herds. Despite the environmental challenges arctic residents face from both industrial exploitation of resources and climate change, governance of the region is characterized by a high level of international cooperation for environmental protection. The establishment of the Arctic Council in 1999, for example, brings together members from all eight nations with arctic lands and considerable indigenous participation providing opportunities for comanagement of resources.
- Fikret Berkes and Dyanna Jolly, “Adapting to Climate Change: Social-Ecological Resilience in a Canadian Arctic Western Community,” Ecology and Society (v.5/2, 2001);
- Robert W. Corell, “ACIA Arctic Climate Impact Assessment,” presented to the Committed for Science, Commerce and Transportation of the S. Senate (March 2004);
- Nelson H.H. Graburn and Stephen Strong, Circumpolar Peoples: An Anthropological Perspective (Goodyear Publishing Company, 1973);
- Richard Vaughan, The Arctic: A History (Sutton Publishing, 1994).