Note: This is the 1997 edition of UNEP's Global Environment Outlook. If you are interested in more recent information, please see the 2000 and 2002 editions.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Global Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version


Chapter 2: Regional Perspectives

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Polar Regions

The Arctic

There is no single definition for delineating the Arctic. Geographers often use the Arctic Circle at a latitude of 66°33'N. Climatologists define the Arctic as a climatic region often using the 10° July isotherm as the boundary. Ecologists use boundaries determined by differences in animal and plant communities, such as the treeline that marks the boundary between taiga forest and tundra (Stonehouse, 1989). The Arctic region typically includes the northern parts of Canada, Finland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, the United States (Alaska), and the whole of Greenland and Iceland. In contrast to the Antarctic, the most northern parts of the Arctic are dominated by the large and deep Arctic Ocean, surrounded by shallow shelves that border the continental masses of North America and Eurasia.

In total, the land mass amounts to 14.8 million square kilometres (CAFF, 1996a), and the Arctic marine area covers approximately 20 million square kilometres (AMAP, personal communication, 1996).Maximum sea ice covers an area of approximately 23 million square kilometres in March and a minimum area of 8 million square kilometres in September (EEA/NPI, 1996).

As with the Antarctic, the Arctic environment is inextricably linked with global climate and sea level. Change in the global climate could have a profound impact on Arctic terrestrial and marine systems. One possible scenario of the impact of climate change in the region is that global warming would decrease snow and ice cover and hence reduce albedo and increase solar energy absorption, leading to faster warming of the region. The ocean's ability to trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is reduced when the waters become warmer. In addition, methane and other greenhouse gases trapped in the permafrost may be released as ice melts. The melting of glaciers would also contribute to sea level rise; recent work suggests that the Greenland ice sheet has made a positive contribution to the sea level rise of 10-25 centimetres observed over the last 100 years (IPCC, 1996).

The relatively pristine Arctic region is threatened by human activities in a number of ways. This large area of sea and sparsely populated land has been perceived as an unlimited resource open for exploitation as well as for the dumping of waste. Arctic areas have been inhabited by humans since the end of the last Ice Age, but population densities have always been low (EEA/NPI, 1996). During most of history the human influence has been limited to local fishing, hunting and gathering, simple agriculture, and pastoralism-widespread but not extensively damaging. The more recent human activities in the region include exploiting ocean fisheries, the forest industry, mining, metallurgic industry, petroleum exploration, tourism, and military activity (EEA/NPI, 1996). Furthermore, the changing life-styles of the indigenous inhabitants, infrastructure development, urbanization, and local waste problems are creating additional pressures. These human activities, together with long-range transported pollutants, threaten many of the natural species and habitats of the Arctic.

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