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The Arctic is changing
by Mark Nuttall
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An environment at risk
  It is difficult to travel far in the Arctic without encountering the workings and effects of the global capitalist industrial system, decades of socialist ideological excess, or reminders of how strategically important the region was during the Cold War. Vast oil producing complexes, such as Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's North Slope, are linked to metropolitan centres by an ever-increasing network of gravel supply roads. Oil and gas pipelines, some of them rusting and leaking, snake across hundreds of miles of tundra and mountain ranges, while seismic trails and the scars of clear-cut logging are etched deep on boreal and tundra landscapes.
  Even in remote areas, far from any human habitation, unwelcome encounters with rubbish and industrial and military waste are reminders of the fragility, brittleness and vulnerability of the Arctic, and of the intrusive nature of human activity. In the northeast of Greenland, for example (an unpopulated area within a protected national park), plastic bags, fishing nets, barbed wire, fuel tanks and beer bottles are to be found washed up on shores seldom visited by humans. On Alaska's Seward Peninsula local people have discovered corroding aircraft batteries in rivers which provide drinking water for summer fishing camps, vehicles dumped by the United States military, and cannisters of mustard gas half-buried in the tundra. And in 1994 five years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground, spilling 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil into Prince William Sound, it was possible to talk to fishermen from southern Alaska still trying to come to terms with the impact of the disaster on their livelihoods.
  The Exxon Valdez incident in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989 illustrated the dangers of transporting oil by sea, and recent leaks from Russian oil pipelines have raised questions about their reliability and safety. Somewhere between 5-10% of Russian oil production is thought to be lost through leaks, oil well blow- outs, waste and theft. Minor discharges from marine vessels, such as tankers, freighters, fishing boats and coastal ferries, operating in northern waters are also a source of pollution and may not be readily monitored, but their impact on Arctic ecosystems may be significant nonetheless. Polar bears, seals, sea otters and sea birds are already frequent casualties of oil contamination, while bowhead whale migration routes through oil and gas lease areas in the Chuckchi Sea could be seriously disrupted if development goes ahead. Scientists have described how the curiosity of polar bears leads them to readily investigate unfamilar objects and smells, including offshore drilling sites and oil cannisters in Arctic villages and Inuit hunting camps. They also risk death by ingesting oil directly, through licking oiled fur or through eating contaminated seals or birds.
  Oil persists for longer periods in the Arctic because low temperatures result in low rates of evaporation and relatively little light during most of the Arctic year reduces ultraviolet radiation necessary for decomposition. The impact of oil pollution on tundra environments may remain visible for several years with lichens, which constitute the main source of food for reindeer, and other plants especially vulnerable to contamination. On land snow and ice cover may stabilise the oil during winter, but spring melt only releases it (thus coinciding with the arrival of migrating birds), while in marine environments Arctic sea ice reduces wave action, which in more temperate regions would help to mitigate the effects of oil pollution. Oil fires also produce smoke clouds that are concentrated at very low atmospheric levels by Arctic air inversions. Not only do smoke clouds from oil fires reduce crucial levels of solar radiation, they contain pollutants harmful to both human health and to the productivity of marine and terrestrial environments.
  Other threats to the Arctic environment and on human populations are less visible, but no less real. UVB radiation has effects on human skin, eyes and the immune system. Atmospheric and marine pollution means organic contaminants enter the food chain at every level. Because these persistent organic pollutants break down more slowly in the Arctic than in warmer regions, they pose greater dangers to human and animal populations. For example, polychlorinated biphenyls (oily, man-made substances known more popularly as PCBs, and which evaporate from rubbish dumps and burning oil) have been found in the breast milk of Canadian Inuit women. PCBs cause cancer and damage the neurological and hormonal development of children. There is also high concentration of PCBs in some seal, walrus and polar bear populations which threatens their reproduction. High levels of mercury have also been found in the liver tissue of ringed and bearded seals - both species constitute the primary source of food for polar bears, as well as forming the basis for the subsistence hunting culture of many Inuit communities. In Greenland, one in six people have dangerous levels of mercury in their blood, while other toxic chemicals found among Inuit include toxaphene and chlordane. Tundra and marine ecosystems are also at risk from the dumping of nuclear waste and heavy metal contamination. Nuclear test explosions have been carried out near Novaya Zemlya in the Russian Arctic, while radioactivity affects the northern Atlantic and Barents Sea. The highest levels of radioactive pollution along the Norwegian coast, for example, have not originated in Russia, however, but from radiochemical plants in the United Kingdom and France.
  Global warming caused by increased emissions of greenhouse gases also threatens to have a significant impact on the Arctic and on the livelihoods of indigenous peoples. Arctic ecosystems are extremely sensitive to climate change and a likely increase in average winter temperatures of between three to six times the global average is predicted. There is already evidence that winters in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions are becoming warmer. While the average temperature of the earth's surface is predicted to increase by between 2°-5°C during the next fifty to one hundred years, the Arctic regions are expected to have greater temperature increases, of up to 10°C. Global warming could reduce the extent of sea ice, permafrost would thaw more quickly in spring but take longer to refreeze in autumn, fish stocks would fluctuate and the migration routes of animals such as caribou would be disrupted as forest, tundra and coastal habitats adapt to new environmental conditions. Climatic change is also likely to disrupt millions of migratory birds as they find less food at stop over points, wintering sites and breeding grounds. Hunting, trapping and fishing activities would be severely affected and the economies of small, remote communities, already vulnerable to changes in global economic conditions, would suffer drastically.
  Arctic climatic processes influence global conditions, which in turn contribute to further change in the Arctic. Some scientists however are careful to point out that, while global temperature data sets seem to suggest that there has been a surface warming of between 0.3 and 0.6°C over the last one hundred years, regional studies do not confirm that there are any worldwide trends. Rather, atmospheric temperature trends in the Arctic are seasonally and spatially variable. Nonetheless, there is considerable alarm at the prospect of global warming, while affecting the Arctic, melting the polar ice caps and resulting in a rise in sea levels, thus threatening coastal towns and cities and low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands. The melting of Arctic permafrost will release huge amounts of methane which will contribute further to the greenhouse effect. Climatic warming may also result in greater cloud cover and higher levels of precipation as a result of more water vapour (another greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere. A hole in the ozone layer has been found over the Arctic (as well as over the Antarctic) and if the ozone layer thins or if the hole gets bigger, then scientists argue that there are a number of implications not only for the Arctic but for the planet as a whole. As ozone, a gas found between 20-50km up in the earth's atmosphere, helps to reduce or filter high-energy ultraviolet radiation from the sun, the thinning of the ozone layer means that more ultraviolet radiation will reach the earth's surface. Possible consequences include mutations in vegetation growth and an increased risk of skin cancer in humans and animals. Ozone depletion may also contribute to a gradual warming of the earth's surface. One of the main causes of ozone depletion is the emission of chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), human-made gases used in refrigerators and aerosols which are unreactive and, once released into the atmosphere, help to thin the ozone layer.
  The Arctic has the unenviable advantage of being a natural scientific laboratory for studying global environmental issues. Some of the most alarming illustrations in recent years that Arctic environmental problems are global rather than regional concerns include the contamination of lichen and reindeer (which eat the lichen) in northern Scandinavia in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, the discovery of PCBs in the breast milk of Canadian Inuit women (which were found to be four times higher than those found in women living in southern Canada), and Arctic haze, which provides the best example of long-range transportation of atmospheric pollution. A photochemical smog which is most problematic during winter, Arctic haze contains pollutants which originate from industrial activity such as coal and oil combustion and steel manufacturing which are transported by air from Eurasia towards the north polar regions where, because the colder air is more stable, the haze particles persist. Sulphur particles are the most common component of Arctic haze and not only do they threaten low-level ozone, they disrupt atmospheric energy flows and contribute to acid rain. Other pollutants include copper, lead, zinc and arsenic. They have been found in lichens and mosses in Alaska, Sweden, Norway and Finland, but also fall in some of the Arctic's prime fishing grounds.
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The Arctic is changing by Mark Nuttall.
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