The ancient Greeks named the region Arktos, meaning bear, “a reference to the Great Bear constellation that circles the northern sky” (New Internationalist, 2009). The name is fitting as the polar bear has become the most iconic symbol of the Arctic. Increasingly unable to access once plentiful food as sea ice disappears, the world’s largest land-based predator and other Arctic wildlife are struggling to survive. As the glaciers around them melt, their very existence is threatened, as are the ways of life of Indigenous Peoples who have called the Arctic home for thousands of years. As climate change opens up shipping routes and access to mineral deposits, this environmental devastation is likely to accelerate.
Given the immense challenges posed by climate change and other environmental threats, cooperation among the Arctic states, and the international community more generally, is needed now more than ever to ensure the Arctic, its inhabitants, and their way of life survive.
What Is the Arctic?
The Arctic is the northernmost region on Earth. It is dominated by the Arctic Ocean basin, with the Russian Federation, the United States, Canada, and the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) all claiming part of it.
It is a place of extremes that easily capture the imagination: hard to reach; hostile, yet stunningly beautiful; fragile, yet rugged.
About four million people live in the Arctic region, with Indigenous Peoples making up a minority of the population. They include, to name a few: the Inuit in Canada, Alaska (US) and Greenland; the Yu’pik, Iñupiat, and Athabascan in Alaska; and the Sami in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Russian Federation. Although ethnically diverse and geographically dispersed, they hunt the same animals, organize their communities along cooperative lines, and have adapted to “a harsh, yet abundant, environment” (New Internationalist, 2009).
Climate Change and the Arctic
The Arctic could be warming up to four times as fast as other regions in the world, according to research undertaken by a team of climate scientists (Voosen, 2021), with a recent study predicting summer sea ice could disappear entirely as early as 2035 (Borunda, 2020).
Arctic sea ice extent is declining each year (IPCC, 2019), with approximately 75% of ice volume disappearing in the last 15 years alone. The remaining ice is thinner and of poorer quality (Purtill, 2021). For the first time since record keeping began, rain fell on the summit of Greenland, a “reliably frozen region” that sits two miles above sea level (Sierra Club, 2021). Scientists have recorded the calls of orcas in areas of the Arctic once blocked by sea ice, threatening the survival of animals up and down the food chain (Purtill, 2021). And in 2020, 21,000 tonnes of diesel spilled from a storage tank at Norilsk Nickel’s power plant in Siberia, polluting rivers and lakes. Investigators believe the tank sank because of melting permafrost due to global warming, which weakened the tank’s supports. Hence, the accident both caused and was the result of environmental destruction in the Arctic (BBC, 2021).
Melting permafrost not only releases carbon dioxide, but also methane and black carbon—short-lived climate pollutants that, while remaining in the atmosphere for shorter periods of time, are 25 times more potent and powerful than carbon dioxide in terms of their contribution to global warming. Black carbon, which causes up to a quarter of warming in the Arctic, is a dark soot that deposits in snow and ice when released, accelerating melting (Shankman, 2018).
Declining sea ice also means the Arctic Ocean will likely see increased commercial shipping and tourist cruises. Large commercial ships are increasingly entering once inaccessible areas, disturbing wildlife and dumping trash as new commercial shipping routes across the Arctic shorten the distance between Europe and Asia. The Arctic is also rich in mineral resources, including vast oil and gas reserves, with the US Geological Survey estimating the Arctic has around a quarter of the world’s oil and gas deposits. As the ice retreats, oil, gas, and other mineral deposits become accessible, drawing private sector actors to the region.
While further environmental damage is inevitable, it can be minimized if actions are taken to restrict or outright ban some of these activities. However, this can only be done through cooperation among Arctic states and the larger international community. No one country can do it alone.