Human footprints growing bigger

Speedy industrialisation in the northern wilderness areas poses a threat to animals, the environment and indigenous people. More than 15 per cent of the Arctic is currently affected by human infrastructure. BY Svein Tveitdal & Lars Kullerud

If this level of development continues, more than half of the Arctic will be affected by mining, oil and gas drilling, harbours, roads, tourism and other service activities by 2050. These calculations have been done in the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) report Global Methodology for Mapping Human Impacts on the Biosphere (GLOBIO).

The report provides a new method of easily summing up the total human impact on nature. In many countries, calculating environmental consequences from e.g. water power plants and roads are subject to regulations. However, the total effects of such development projects have never been properly calculated. GLOBIO provides a new and relatively easy method to do so. The methods used in the GLOBIO report were developed by the Norwegian Directorate for Nature Management (NINA) and GRID-Arendal, together with a number of international scientists. More than 200 conclusions from scientific studies around the world are the foundation of GLOBIO. These studies show how human activity affects the environment. As more of the remaining wilderness areas decrease in size and number, many species will be concentrated in these areas, which will increase the pressure on ecosystems;
webs of life that animals depend on for food, water and shelter.

GLOBIO is building on infrastructure as an indicator for human intervention. Roads, railways and pipelines are all signs of industrialisation. When these transportation gateways are established, a more uncontrollable development follows, such as increased immigration and larger cities. All those factors increase deforestation, over- grazing, water pollution, social conflicts, erosion and fragmentation of wilderness areas.

Animal life
Most animals try to avoid human-built infrastructure. More than 100 studies of Arctic animal species show that some animals will have problems in the wake of industrialisation. Reindeer herds may be influenced by roads up to five kilometres away. Larger predators, such as wolf and bear, are affected when the nearest road is closer than two kilometres away. Most birds only have to be one kilometre away from a road to feel its negative impact. Shrinking and fragmented pastures results in over-grazing which leads to erosion and
affects animals reproduction abilities. Predators and prey animals may be forced to live closer to each other.

There will be losers but also winners in the Arctic wildlife in the future. A number of animals will take advantage of the fact that other species are disappearing. In 2050, the Arctic will have less migratory birds and mammals like the polar fox and the reindeer, but more gulls and red foxes. When humans interfere in the delicate ecological balance in the Arctic, opportunistic species may play more pronounced roles. More specialised animal species will be reduced in numbers that approach extinction.

Vegetation and flora
Power and pipelines have limited short-term affect on the Arctic vegetation. Changes in snow cover and smaller disturbances in the soil can normally be detected up to 500 metres from such power lines. On a broader scale however, these structures have an adverse affect on the ecosystem. Up to two kilometres away from the pipelines, effects can be measured in changes in permafrost and damage from off-road vehicles

Indigenous people
Hunting is the lifeline of many indigenous groups as Sami, Komi, and Chukchi in Euro-Asia and Dogrib, Cree, Innu and Yupiit in North-America. These people have evolved in close relationship with their environment. Social networks, traditions and a lifestyle thousands of years old depends on the movements of the animals.

Northern Scandinavia and part of Russia are examples of areas where the current growth in infrastructure connected to transportation, oil, gas and mineral extracts, is incompatible
with reindeer herding. Indigenous people are forced to leave their nomadic lifestyles in favour of a settled lifestyle. In Alaska, Canada and in Greenland many indigenous people will increasingly be affected when all their traditional food habits and activities disappear as a result of industrialisation.

For further reading:

Svein Tveitdal, Managing Director

Lars Kullerud, Director
University of the Arctic

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