The sources of global freshwater are steadily declining and with increasing demands from the south the Arctic could become the world’s future supplier of freshwater to countries in the south. Freshwater as a saleable commodity might be the future, though so far this idea has been met with strong opposition.

This is what the recently released United Nations Environment programme (UNEP)'s Global Environment Outlook report, the GEO- 3, states about Arctic freshwater.

Ice dominates parts of the Arctic and holds much of the world’s freshwater in frozen state. For example, the ice pack of the Arctic Ocean is 8 million square kilometres and the Greenland Ice Pack covers 1.7 million square kilometres and stores 10 per cent of global freshwater only second in size to the Antarctic ice cap.

Fresh water is also stored in icebergs, which break off from glaciers and are released into open water, and in the Arctic permafrost. Permafrost is permanently frozen ground that extends throughout most of the Arctic.

The Arctic’s major river systems are equally important sources of freshwater. The Arctic has several of the world’s largest rivers; seven of these are in Russia with the Lena, the Yenisey and the Ob being the largest. They pour 4,200 cubic kilometres of freshwater into the Arctic Ocean annually.

Since for most of the year the Arctic is in its frozen state, the massive spring outpouring of melting freshwater occurs in a short spurt of a few weeks. Melting snow also contributes to spring run-off. An increase in the flow of freshwater to the surface layer of the Arctic Ocean affects its salinity, and the currents, which in turn will affect the northern hemispheres and global climate. Changes in climate may interfere with the formation of the North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) and the northward-flowing Gulf Stream. Some scientists believe that this may potentially stop altogether with subsequent dire consequences for Europe’s climate.

Arctic countries have partially responded to threats to their freshwater systems by establishing protected areas. Nearly half the protected area in the Arctic is the Greenland ice cap and glaciers, which store freshwater.

For further reading:
GEO-3: http://www.grida.no/geo3
PAME (2001) http://pame.arctic-council.org

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