Land: the Polar Regions

The Arctic

The Arctic land mass is approximately 14 million km2 (AMAP 1997), of which the Russian Federation and Canada account for nearly 80 per cent, the Nordic countries for around 16 per cent and the United States about 4 per cent (CAFF 1994).

The Arctic consists of three main sub-systems:

  • the high polar desert in eastern Canada, which comprises mainly bare soils and rocks with sparse plant communities;
  • the tundra, which is a vast, open plain with continuous low vegetation cover; and
  • the forest-tundra, which is the transition zone that parallels the boreal forest to the south, and consists of patches of continuous forest cover interspersed with tundra-like open areas (CAFF 2001).
Ecosystems in the Arctic

The Arctic is characterized by three main ecosystems: desert, tundra and the forest-tundra which is the transition zone

Source: CAFF 2001

Besides its living resources, the Arctic contains huge deposits of oil, gas and minerals. In the Arctic regions of North America, there has been a recent upsurge of mining and associated infrastructural development. Likewise, in the Russian Federation - a country which covers 12.6 per cent of the Earth's land surface - much land has been seriously degraded by mineral extraction, forestry, fires, air pollution or conversion to agriculture, and erosion is widespread and increasing. In recent years, approximately 70 million ha of tundra have been degraded through destruction of soil and vegetative cover, resulting from prospecting, mineral development, vehicular movement, construction and, at certain locations, overgrazing by reindeer (OECD 1999).

The Russian Federation has established a solid legislative and regulatory base to respond to these threats. Unfortunately, implementation is not guaranteed due to the decline in the Russian economy, especially since 1998. Without an infusion of financial support to implement and enforce the legislative regime, the environmental situation will continue to decline (OECD 1999).

Along with increased resource exploitation, construction of roads and other infrastructure is also changing the face of the Arctic landscape.

In Norway, for example, the area of undisturbed land has been reduced from 48 per cent in 1900 to 11.8 per cent in 1998. Norway is taking political action and is now placing increased emphasis on preservation of wilderness areas and to avoid piecemeal development (Nellemann and others 2001).

Tourism is growing in the Arctic and is already an important component of the economies of the north although it is still in its infancy in northern Russia. In 2000, more than 1.5 million people visited the Arctic (CAFF 2001). There are concerns, however, that tourism is promoting environmental degradation by putting extra pressures on land, wildlife, water and other basic necessities, and on transportation facilities.

Erosion is a serious problem in parts of the Arctic. It is caused by thawing, removal of ground cover and deforestation. In Iceland, for example, more than onehalf of the vegetation and soil cover has been lost since the island was colonized by humans, especially in the interior, as a result of deforestation and overgrazing.

Arctic country governments have taken some action to protect their land base. Approximately 15 per cent of the Arctic land mass is protected, although nearly 50 per cent of the protected area is classified as Arctic desert or glacier - the least productive part of the Arctic and the one with the lowest biodiversity and habitat values (CAFF 2001).