Urban areas: the Polar Regions

While the Antarctic is uninhabited, the Arctic has 3.75 million permanent residents, according to the Arctic Council. Most settlements have remained modest in size, with populations of less than 5 000 people. The vast majority of Arctic residents today are nonindigenous immigrants. This shift in demographic make-up has been accompanied by a steady increase in urbanization, with migration from smaller settlements to larger urban settings, a general trend throughout the Arctic (see box).

Urban growth in the Arctic

Greenland has experienced urban growth since the 1970s (Rasmussen and Hamilton 2001). Roughly one-quarter of Greenland's population lives in Nuuk, the capital. This concentration of the urban population in one city is found in other Arctic countries: 40 per cent of Iceland's growing population lives in Reykjavik, onethird of the Faroe Islands' people lives in Torshavn, and almost 40 per cent of the population of Canada's Northwest Territories' lives in Yellowknife.

Anchorage in Alaska is the only North American Arctic city with a population of more than 100 000. The rapidly growing population of Anchorage reached 262 200 in 2001, while the population of the next largest city of Arctic Alaska, Fairbanks, declined slightly over the past decade to 30 500.

Norway has pursued a policy of discouraging migration from its northern counties, providing significant support to stimulate jobs, industry, higher education and research in the North. While this policy has not stemmed the decline in small settlements, Tromsų, the largest city in the Scandinavian Arctic, grew to 49 600 in 2001 despite its location at nearly 70° N.

On the other hand, North America attempted to avoid permanent settlements around mines and oil fields by using shift workers rather than moving families north. Facilities were deliberately located away from indigenous villages, and since the 1980s agreements and partnerships have been developed with indigenous organizations to reduce environmental and social impacts, and to increase local employment (Osherenko and Young 1989).

The Russian Federation has 11 cities with populations of more than 200 000 above 60° N (Weir 2001). All grew around resource exploitation, including fishing, wood processing, mining and fuel extraction (CIA 1978). The population of Murmansk, Russia's only ice-free port in the Arctic, grew to 440 000 in 1989. Economic incentives were used to attract people to work in extractive industries in the Russian north, accompanied by the development of urban centres with multi-story apartment blocks, built on permafrost with few or no road or railway connections.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the influx into the Russian Arctic has begun to reverse. Following market reforms, contraction of social safety nets, reduced government subsidies, devaluation of the currency and general economic decline in post- Soviet Russia, cities have been unable to support large populations. In the formerly prosperous coal-mining city of Vorkuta, coal production recently dropped to only 2 per cent of what it had been 10 years earlier, the municipal budget had a 100 per cent deficit and the population declined by nearly 30 000 (Weir 2001, World Gazetteer 2001). Tens of thousands left cities such as Norilsk and Murmansk between 1989 and 2001, and in some places the population declined by more than 50 per cent. The Russian Government - with World Bank assistance - provided housing credits and other aid to those seeking to relocate from the Arctic (Weir 2001, World Gazetteer 2001).

The rapid growth of the Arctic population (see 'The socio-economic background') and its increasing concentration in urban settlements has significant implications for the fragile ecosystems of the north. The pressures of urbanization in the Arctic are comparable to those elsewhere but are magnified by the challenges of the climate and remoteness. For example, with winter temperatures dipping as low as -60°C in parts of the Arctic, and with an almost continuous state of darkness for months on end, per capita energy use is very large, adding to the pollution burden of the Arctic. Except for Iceland, which has thermal power, urban centres rely on diesel fuel, hydroelectric or nuclear power. Road networks are expanding and this is leading to increased land use conflicts with wildlife and indigenous people. Habitat fragmentation and sanitation and waste disposal pose perhaps the greatest urban environmental problems.