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Social and economic aspects of climate change in arctic regions
by Hugh Beach
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  Human populations of the Arctic have evolved both physically and culturally in relation to extreme climatic conditions. To the peoples living in the North, normal seasonal variation has always been considerable, commonly demanding or enabling routine changes of settlement area, social grouping, house form, subsistence activity, mode of transportation, and diet.
  It is a difficult balance to weigh risks of diminishing certainty with appropriate action and concern so as to make a meaningful and positive difference. Currently most predictions on climate change keep to a 50-100 year frame. Within this time span, climatic change may not be so great as to overwhelm the temperature extremes between natural, annual seasonal fluctuations, but it will surely shift, stretch or compress the seasons considerably, to bring about spiraling accumulative changes such as in the thawing of permafrost, northward shift of biotope zones, and radical alterations of ice formation. These changes in turn will greatly effect breeding patterns and migratory behavior of species central to indigenous livelihoods and cultural traditions. While I habitually address indigenous issues, much of what I say here applies equally to non-indigenous Arctic residents.
  Arctic ecological subsystems can be usefully categorized according to a tripartite division: marine, freshwater and terrestrial. All of these share the feature that they are relatively young, since only approximately 10,000 years have passed since the retreat of the continental ice sheets. Relatively few species have had the time to adapt to life in the Arctic, but the members of these few species can be in great supply, forming a so called specialized ecosystem. Besides the youth of the Arctic ecosystem, its soil is relatively infertile, precipitation low, growing season short, and wind speed high. As the vegetation is quite uniform, there is also low diversity of animal habitats, and because of its low biological diversity, the Arctic ecosystem can be quite unstable, being in short supply of the checks and balances provided by the systemic integration of many species. Particularly in the terrestrial subsystem this is evident in the widely fluctuating population levels of dominant species.
  Marine mammals: whales, walrus, polar bear and seals of various species, are major elements of the marine ecosystem and of major importance to human subsistence and cultural maintenance. Although the polar seas can team with large standing crops of certain species at certain seasons, this is by no means a general or constant condition. High productivity is actually more common in the subpolar seas or where waters from different sources merge and cause the upwelling of nutrients. Moreover, the life which seems abundant is largely composed of seasonal migrants to specific feeding grounds where food production can be intense but short. This implies, for example, that even if climate change does not cause the reduction of the world's stock of ringed seals, it might indeed cause them to migrate in new paths, thereby dramatically affecting subsistence harvesting and hence human settlement patterns.
  Food chains are also short. Growth and rates of reproduction for most species are low. Species abundance is not solely regulated by abundance or scarcity further down the feeding chain, however. The population density of breeding seals, for example, is positively correlated with the distribution and condition of coastal sea ice. Inuit hunters know the usual types of ice formation at different places and therefore know where seal breathing holes are most likely to be found. Inuit hunting strategies are the result of the interplay of complex variables such as the distribution of numerous game species, dietary needs, transportation possibilities, and energy expenditures of different hunting forms. The separate and combined effects of the warming of land and water temperatures along different scales as well as changes in precipitation will most assuredly effect ice formation and thereby both the distribution and breeding of game animals. This in turn may cause current settlement locations, originally determined solely by subsistence criteria but often later endowed with an imported infrastructure, to be misplaced--or rather, their viability will be increasingly dependent upon externally derived funds, services and employment instead of the harvesting of subsistence resources.
  Especially for the northern peoples of Fennoscandia and the Eurasian continent, fish, notably salmon and char, are dietary staples, mainly in the summer months. Even in North America, freshwater fishing is by no means insignificant. Freeman mentions that there are about 60 species of freshwater Arctic fish, although only about 10 of these are utilized by man. Rivers generally provide the best nutrient base for fish and therefore estuaries and deltas prove most attractive to fish predators. Humans are attracted to these areas for the fish, for the accompanying wildfowl, and for the fur provided by the furbearers drawn to the same areas.
  Obviously increased precipitation and C02 concentrations with global warming will affect vegetation growth (type and spread) and the composition and reach of forests. With an average projected temperature increase of 10-60 times as fast as that which has occurred from the end of the last Ice Age to the present, some scientists predict a state of non-equilibrium between the atmosphere and other highly determinative climatic variables. For example, the deep oceans will warm at a rate much slower than that of the surface water, and forests will spread north at rates which lag far behind what the rate of widening habitat due to warming would make possible. It is also quite possible that a number of feedback spirals will be created. For example temperature rise affects a considerable decrease in global ice coverage which will cause greater heat exchange between ocean and atmosphere, causing even less ice formation, etc. Moreover, less ice means better ocean-going transportation possibilities for longer periods and probably increased oil and gas exploration and eventual exploitation. The expected 15-95 cm rise of the sea level during the next 100 years can displace vast numbers of people to the south and can also render many Arctic settlements uninhabitable. Land erosion will also increase dramatically with the rise of the sea level. Seasonal shifts, precipitation, ice quantity and quality, and snow conditions are but some of the variables that will surely affect the means of northern transportation, hence hunting strategies and settlement.
  With regard to the terrestrial subsystem, snow cover is of utmost importance both to vegetative cover, but also to the herbivores (reindeer/caribou, moose, musk-ox) dependent upon grazing resources. Winter snowfall is a main source of water to plants, but if snows are too deep or too crusted the access of herbivores to their necessary grazing resource is cut off, resulting in mass starvation. Should periods of cold weather alternate with periods of mild weather, ice can form on plants so as to make them useless for grazing animals. The wild reindeer of Eurasia or caribou of North America have been essential to the survival of many northern hunters. In Fennoscandia and Eurasia domestic reindeer herding is a major livelihood among indigenous pastoralists, an important food resource, source of employment, and a foundation of their cultural heritage. Changes to the reindeer herding livelihood occasioned by increased precipitation and warmth are difficult to foresee. However, it must be noted that northern lands are far from the unexploited wildernesses that many believe them to be. The herding livelihood is in serious competition for land resources with a number of exploitive industries, for example hydro-electric power, mining, and timber. Were vegetative conditions to alter so that reindeer ranges could expand or have a greater carrying capacity, this does not at all mean that the herding livelihood will expand.
  Degradation of permafrost, and thermokarst erosion will affect surface water runoff and introduce more nutrients into the soil. Warmer soils will lead to greater decomposition of organic matter, more nutrients for plants, therefore population increases and migratory shifts of grazing herbivores hunted or herded by indigenous peoples.
  Wage employment is vital to most northern dwellers, indigenous and non-indigenous, and many impacts on urban markets even far to the south will certainly effect people in the North. Few northern communities are isolated from modern industrial centers, and a good number of them are grossly dependent upon government subsidies and programs. Should one follow all the possible repercussions of climatic change, few if any aspects of life would not be impacted in some way or other. Northern social impact ricocheting off altered climatic determinants of southern populations may be great, especially and maybe hopefully with respect to the attention directed to the north by well-endowed research. The mesh of causal loops is wonderfully intricate, making our ability to predict the repercussions of variable change hopelessly crude. If we are to reverse negative trends or even to react to them in the best way, it is essential to grasp the causal paths binding human behavior (such as pollution emissions) with climatic effects and how these loop back to human impacts. Unfortunately it is often only once we have suffered the negative impact that we see the arcs of our actions turn into loops.
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Social and economic aspects of climate change in arctic regions, by Hugh Beach.
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