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The Arctic is getting more and more vulnerable, UNEP warns

"Sneaking" road development and climate change is rapidly making the Arctic more accessible to oil, gas and mineral exploration.

Tromsø, 13 August, 2002 - Sneaking road development and less sea ice in a warming climate has opened up vast formerly in-accessible land and sea corridors to industry, and may result in a new boom in Arctic exploration for oil, gas and minerals. The Arctic is the last remaining wilderness on Earth, but over 70% may be heavily disturbed by industry in less than 50 years. Wildlife and indigenous people are particularly vulnerable as they now face the combined threats of industrial development, pollutants and climate change, warn UN scientists at an Arctic Parliamentary Conference in Tromsø, Norway.

Thinning of the Arctic Sea-ice

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Comparison of sea-ice draft data acquired on submarine cruises betwen 1993 and 1997 with data from 1958-1976 indicates that mean ice draft at the end of the melt season has decreased by 1,3 m (from 3,1 m to 1,8 m). Value is down by 40%

Sea-ice draft is the thickness of the part of the ice that is submerged under the sea. Ice draft in the 1990s is over a meter thinner than two to four decades erlier.

Sources: D.A. Rothrock, Y.Yu and G.A. Maykut, Thinning of the Arctic sea-ice cover, University of Washington, Seattle, 1999.

The Executive director of UNEP, Dr. Klaus Töpfer, presented some of the findings of a new report on Global Environmental Change prepared by UNEP together with several other UN agencies. The upcoming report presents scenarios for biodiversity, security and indigenous people across the globe as part of the new GLOBIO-project to help map the future consequences of human expansions.

Less sea ice due to a warming climate and a rapidly bit-by-bit expanding network has across the last 25 years now opened up large previously in-accessible parts of the Arctic to industrial exploration.

"The fact that the resources of the Arctic are of extreme importance and value for the outside world, but also that the Arctic's small population, numbering less than 4 million people, cannot reap the economic and social benefits from resource use, represent political and moral challenges. There are needs for new sustainable strategies in place to control this development", warns Topfer. "Many indigenous people and subsistence based communities still rely heavily on reindeer and caribou, and like the Saamiis, they may gradually lose more and more traditional land and their incomes as a result of this bit-by-bit development".

Mr. Svein Tveitdal, director at UNEP's Key Polar Centre, in Norway GRID-Arendal says: "Lack of strategic level planning of the expansion of the infrastructure network is one of the largest threats to sustainable development anywhere in the world. Many of the cumulative impacts on biodiversity and indigenous people could have been avoided if strategic plans had been made at regional scales. However, environmental regulations and governments focus on the individual development projects that often are individually insignificant, but collectively critical to the environment and indigenous people."

Climate change and road development is accelerating industrial development, and is becoming a combined threat to many indigenous people in the North. Examples include the Barents Sea and Northwestern Siberia, The Yukon territory and Alaska's North Slope. While heavy debate has been conducted on the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, the expansion of the infrastructure network outside preserves in Alaska, Canada and Russia has been overlooked.

Threats to the sustainable lifestyle of indigenous peoples in Russia

Source: Result of questionnaires, Russian Association of Peoples of the North (RAIPON)

"Two corridors - one from the Athabascan Lake through the Mackenzie Delta in Yukon across the North Slope of Alaska, the other stretching from the Norwegian coast in the Barents Sea to the Yamal Peninsula, are both regions that are now becoming major entrance ports to the Arctic wilderness for mining and oil companies", says Dr. Christian Nellemann at UNEP/GRID-Arendal, global co-coordinator for the GLOBIO-project.

Continued growth at current rates in infrastructure, gas, oil, and mineral extraction may, within 40-50 years, seriously impact wildlife populations and ecosystems across 50-80% of the Arctic. Migratory species, like birds, will carry the impacts with them far beyond the Arctic region. Furthermore, the cumulative impacts are likely to affect many of the indigenous cultures in the Arctic, which are depending upon natural resources for their traditional lifestyles.

Many chemicals released to air or water by activities in Europe and North America accumulate in the High North. Hazardous substances may lead to genetic defects, and may result in metabolic changes, reduced fertility, and cancer. Nervous systems and muscle functions may also be affected. All in all, such pollutants may seriously affect the health and welfare of entire Arctic communities.

The observed warmer climate with longer shipping seasons has lead to a considerable interest in the Northern Sea Route for transportation. Norway opened for natural gas and condensate production in the Barents Sea in 2002, and oil production north of the Kola Peninsula is currently underway.

The report points out, that while many of the larger oil companies may have strict environmental regulations, the secondary more uncontrolled bit-by-bit development of the road network associated with new economic activity is the one that produces the greatest impacts on indigenous people and wildlife through more increased access, recreational cabins, resorts, roads, power lines, hydro power dams and wind mills for local electricity supply, non-indigenous settlement and traffic.

Evolution and prognoses of the Infrastructure density and associated impacted land areas (2000, 2030 and 2050)

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Source: Global Methodology for Mapping Human Impacts on the Biosphere (GLOBIO), United Nations Environement Programme (UNEP), (http://www.globio.info/)

Flora and fauna in an estimated 30% of the Barents Sea region is currently impacted by anthropogenic development, ranging from 49% in Norway to 13% in Russia. In less than 50 years, more than 90% may become impacted in this region, making these areas largely unsuitable for traditional reindeer husbandry.

The number of reindeer will have to be continuously reduced in an environment with decreasing ranges to avoid overgrazing. At the same time, they are also increasingly confronted with predator problems, as predators like wolves (Canis lupus) and wolverines (Gulo gulo) are protected according to international conventions, but extent of undisturbed areas for both reindeer and predators is rapidly declining.

The fragmentation of Arctic habitats may, at the levels of development predicted, seriously threaten biodiversity and ecosystem function. Considerable scientific research in the 1990s confirm that fragmentation of landscapes by infrastructure and related activities of human resource utilization (logging, farming, mineral extraction etc.) directly result in reduced productivity and survival of many species, and hence, in reduced species richness.

Terrestrial infrastructure development may also substantially affect aquatic systems not only by i.e. pollution, but also through increased shipping and resource extraction in sea and freshwater ecosystems. Stream and lake ecosystems are also affected through the building of dams, wetland drainage, channelization, and groundwater exploitation. This will impact fish, invertebrates, sea mammals, and other organisms through increased harvesting or disturbance. Infrastructure therefore causes impacts far beyond those effects directly induced by the physical footprint of the roads.

Note to editors:

The report "Global Environmental Change - Environment and security 2000-2050" will be released in full after the WSSD in Johannesburg. This press release contains some of the findings related to the Arctic of the report.

The Arctic GLOBIO report from 2001 is available at www.globio.info, where also maps and graphics can be downloaded. GLOBIO: Global Methodology for Mapping Human Impacts on the Biosphere.

The Arctic comprises of the Arctic Sea, the northern territories of North America, Greenland, Iceland, the northern part of Scandinavia and the northern part of the Russian Federation.

For maps and graphics on the level of pollution and oil and gas exploitation please go to: www.grida.no/prog/polar/tromsoe2002

The GLOBIO report was commissioned by UNEP.

For more information please contact:

Svein Tveitdal
Managing Director of UNEP/GRID-Arendal
Telephone: +47 37035730
Mobile: +47 90589032
Email: tveitdal@grida.no

Christian Nelleman
Global co-ordinator of GLOBIO at
Telephone: +47 61287900
Mobile: +47 93466713
Email: christian.nellemann@nina.no

Lars Haltbrekken
Media Officer, UNEP/GRID-Arendal,
Telephone: +47 22376292
Mobile: +47 91612191
Email: lars.haltbrekken@grida.no

Human Impact on Northern Russia

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Note: file size is 1 MB

Source: Global Methodology for Mapping Human Impacts on the Biosphere (GLOBIO) 2002.

Persistent Organic Pollutants in the Arctic

Source region for POPs in Arctic air based on 5-day back trajectories for elevated air concentration in various places in the Arctic area

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Note: POPs observed here are HCH, Chlordane, Toxaphene and PCBs

Source: Result of questionnaires, Russian Association of Peoples of the North (RAIPON)

Source: Oehme et al. 1996, Barrie et al. unpublished data, in AMAP Assessment Report: Arctic Pollution Issues. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo, Norway, 1998.

Average concentration of PCBs in the Arctic lichen and mosses

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Source: Oehme et al. 1996, Barrie et al. unpublished data, in AMAP Assessment Report: Arctic Pollution Issues. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo, Norway, 1998.

HCH budget for the Arctic ocean, in tonnes per year

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Source: AMAP Assessment Report: Arctic Pollution Issues. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo, Norway, 1998.

Distribution of organochlorine contaminants (OCs) in the Arctic

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Sources : Norstrom and Muir 1994., in AMAP Assessment Report: Arctic Pollution Issues. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo, Norway, 1998.