GRID Polar Division News

Arctic development and climate change threaten some of planet’s last wild coasts

Less than one percent of critically important coastal areas protected says new UNEP report.

NAIROBI , 24 February - The Arctic, one of the last great wilderness areas on Earth is under threat from over- exploitation and a lack of protection.

Rapid infrastructure development, compounded by global climate change, is threatening wildlife and the lifestyles and livelihoods of indigenous peoples across the Arctic’s unique coastal and marine areas.

Less than one percent of these critically important coastal areas are protected, according to a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report, “Vital Arctic Graphics”, says that the construction of roads, pipelines, power-lines and hydropower dams have increased dramatically in the past decades in northern Scandinavia, Russia, northwestern Canada and Alaska.

It also warns that global climate change is causing sea ice to melt along coastal areas and that this could open up areas to unsustainable resource exploitation including more intensive coastal fisheries.

The report also points to the potential impacts on indigenous peoples from increased competition to land rights and natural resources to the further introduction of pollution and toxins into the human food chain.

Traditional lifestyles with extensive use of food from sea mammals, wildlife and birds eggs make arctic peoples extremely vulnerable to accumulation of toxins, POPs (persistent organic pollutants) and heavy metals.

Indigenous peoples in the Arctic have some of the highest known exposures to these chemicals, like POPs, which pose serious health risks, even though they have not used or necessarily benefited from industries associated with these chemicals.

According to the new report exposure to Mercury, one of the most toxic heavy metals in the world, is on the increase. Some groups of indigenous peoples in Greenland and in Arctic Canada have been found to have very high exposure to mercury, the report says.

Launching the report in Nairobi today, Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said, “The coming decade may be our last chance to preserve this global heritage, of which no equivalent remains anywhere on this planet and which is so crucial to Arctic peoples and life.”

While the coming into force of the Kyoto Protocol is an important step forward, climate change is already impacting the Arctic environment.

Late in 2004, an impact assessment on the Arctic concluded that over the past three decades, sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has declined an average of 8% annually, exposing an area larger than Texas and Arizona combined. The effect is most dramatic in summer, when ice levels drop as much as 20%.

By 2100, as much as half of the region’s sea ice may have melted away with huge consequences not only for global weather systems but the people and wildlife of the Arctic.

Mr Toepfer said, “While there have been warnings on climate change and development in the Arctic separately, these coasts and marine areas are now facing the cumulative impacts of these two pressures. Separately the threats of over-exploitation and climate change are severe, but together they are deadly,” he said.

“We can still give these ecosystems and people a chance to reduce the impacts of climate change by protecting the vital coastal areas”, says Christian Nellemann, Senior officer at UNEP’s Arctic centre in Arendal, Norway. “Wild coasts and untouched sea together are hardly seen anymore or anywhere else on the planet”

”Arctic governments have a lot of flexibility in selecting protected areas without compromising sensitive development plans because there is still wilderness left. There is therefore a large window of opportunity for them now to take this global responsibility before it is too late. But it is becoming urgent”, he adds.

The Arctic council, a council of ministers and indigenous peoples from the Arctic, recently declared to speed up the protection status of particularly marine areas.

Coastal areas are particularly important to Arctic peoples and ecosystems. Caribou and reindeer, crucial to people like the Saami and the Nenets, often travel to the coastal regions for their calving grounds and summer ranges. Many species, such as polar bears, walrus and shore birds, breed on and near land but spend most of their lives and find most of their food at sea or in the drift ice.

These areas also have a global significance. During the short summer season, millions of migratory birds arrive in the Arctic to breed in the wetlands and coastal shores of the tundra plains. No other place on Earth receives migratory species from so many corners of the planet.

According to the new report while more than 71% of coasts worldwide are now impacted by development and their coastal-marine areas exposed to industrialised fisheries, the equivalent figure in the Arctic is still less than 7%. More than 90 percent of the Worlds non-Arctic coasts may become impacted by 2050 by human development.

The report says, therefore, that the Arctic appears to hold the last of the world’s remaining large, undeveloped coastal ecosystems, a unique global ecological heritage.

Notes to Editors

“Vital Arctic Graphics; People and global heritage on our last wild shores” is available at  and

For More Information Please Contact:
Eric Falt, UNEP Spokesperson and Director of the Division of Communications and Public Information
Tel.: 254-(0)20-623292, Mobile: +254-(0)733-682656, E-mail:

Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media
Tel: 254-(0)20-623084, Mobile: 254-(0)733-632755, E-mail:

Robert Bisset, UNEP Spokesperson for Europe
Tel: +33 1 44377613, Mobile: +33 6 22725842, E-mail:

Friday 25 Feb 2005