The Arctic’s unique ecosystems and wildlife are under pressure. On the cusp of a renewal of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s 10-year strategy, Martin Sommerkorn and Melanie Lancaster say it’s important to identify what can and should be achieved in the Arctic in the next decade to benefit nature and people. Is it all that different from what needs to be done elsewhere?
Ten years is a long time in a region experiencing rapid transformative change. From 2011 to 2020—the lifespan of the last Strategic Plan for Biodiversity that was agreed to under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)—nature and people in the Arctic experienced many firsts. For example, in 2016, residents of the Alaskan coastal village of Shishmaref voted to relocate because the effects of the climate crisis were causing buildings to slide into the sea. In 2018, a sperm whale surfaced in the waters of Canada’s High Arctic, far north of its normal range, surprising local people and researchers alike. And in 2019, an extraordinary number of salmon running in the rivers of Wrangel Island off Russia became snacks for hungry polar bears.
Last summer, an unprecedented number of intense, long-lasting wildfires burned across the Arctic Circle as temperatures hit record highs. The frigid waters of the Barents Sea became more hospitable to southern fish species, which replaced Arctic ones. And in each of the last five years, annual Arctic surface temperatures have exceeded those of any year since 1900.
...And that was just the beginning
Last year’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was unequivocal in stating that trends like these will intensify in the coming decades, with grave impacts for Arctic habitats, species and ecosystems. Protecting habitats effectively and stemming their loss—cornerstones of past (and likely future) CBD strategies—will be virtually impossible for Arctic states without strong climate action on a global scale, and possibly even with it.
Take summer sea ice extent, for example, currently shrinking at a rate of approximately 13 per cent per decade. The sea ice ecosystem provides habitat for unique Arctic species, from algae and fish to polar bears and walrus. Arctic tundra is another example: its area is forecast to halve by 2050. This trend may drive barren-ground caribou, or wild reindeer—whose numbers have already declined by 60 per cent in the past two decades—beyond their ability to adapt. These and other impacts will deeply affect the benefits people receive from nature, ranging from food security to cultural survival.
Proactive efforts could be cause for hope
In many ways, the Arctic has a head start compared with other regions of the world when it comes to efforts to be Nature Positive by 2030: numerous Arctic species are in good shape because many of the region’s habitats and ecosystems are still largely intact. Rather than beginning with efforts to restore nature, we have an opportunity to be proactive and focus on supporting its inherent resilience and ability to adapt.
But Arctic states still need to prepare for the growing challenges of climate change, industrial development, and the loss and fragmentation of habitats in a systematic, co-operative fashion. Planning and management must include the participation of Arctic Indigenous Peoples to ensure that nature is managed in a way that strengthens current and future food security, livelihoods and cultural integrity.
Safeguarding the diversity of Arctic life should be approached at the ecosystem scale and consider both the current and anticipated distribution of Arctic nature. Establishing networks of protected and conserved areas that cover at least 30 per cent of the terrestrial and marine Arctic is critical to strengthening the resilience of biodiversity in the context of multiple mounting pressures. As of 2016, only 20.2 per cent of Arctic land and 4.7 of the Arctic Ocean, respectively, were under protection. This means there is no shortage of work to do in the coming years.
Planning for networks of protected and conserved areas should also include refugia for species that will be affected by future sea ice melt—and ensure that industrial development doesn’t disturb those species or foreclose options for them to find new homes as they adapt.
Strong climate action and effective biodiversity conservation are inextricably linked in the Arctic. The positive narrative of polar bears fishing for salmon gives us hope that Arctic wildlife and ecosystems may yet adapt in some regions if they are given the conditions and space to do so.
Upping the ante
Arctic people and governments—and everyone who values Arctic nature and its benefits for mankind—must raise their stakes during the crucial decade ahead and act on the unique opportunities for engagement that exist both locally and globally. The Arctic’s future hinges on halving humanity’s global production and consumption footprint by 2030—an issue tackled by both the CBD and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to which all Arctic countries but one are parties.
According to the Ecological Footprint Explorer, the per capita footprint of every Arctic country ranks within the top 17 per cent in the world, so pointing at global institutions is a call to lead, not an excuse to wait. Many regional efforts to protect habitats and safeguard the diversity of Arctic life and cultures are critically dependent on reducing these footprints.
MARTIN SOMMERKORN is head of conservation with the WWF Arctic Programme.
MELANIE LANCASTER is a senior specialist, Arctic species with the WWF Arctic Programme.
The Arctic is at the hard edge of many of the biggest challenges facing the world today. Global warming, melting sea ice and ocean pollution all have direct implications for Arctic biodiversity as well as for communities that rely on nature’s services for everything from cultural identities to livelihoods.
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