© Heïdi Sevestre

Everything is at risk: Rapidly changing climate threatens Arctic ecosystems, food supplies, infrastructure, transportation and livelihoods

26 October 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: The Climate Crisis: There's No Going Back. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

As WWF has frequently documented in its reports and web content in recent years, the Arctic is warming more quickly than any other region on Earth—and Indigenous People are experiencing major impacts from the many climate-related changes that continue to occur there. JANET PAWLAK highlights the findings of a recent report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP). Spoiler alert: No aspect of life in this region is unaffected by increasing temperatures and their impacts on ice, snow, permafrost and ecosystems.

FOR PEOPLE AND animals living in the Arctic, climate change is not a distant threat—it is the driving force in many of the environmental, economic and societal transitions in the region today. These impacts are especially hard on Indigenous communities.

AMAP recently updated past assessments in a report titled Arctic Climate Change Update 2021: Key Trends and Impacts. This report shows that climate change is affecting virtually every aspect of life for people in the Arctic—particularly Indigenous communities—because of its effects on ecosystems, especially with regard to the productivity, seasonality, distribution and interactions of species in Arctic terrestrial, coastal and marine environments. Extreme weather events are increasing in intensity and frequency.

THREATENING THE TRADITIONAL ARCTIC WAY OF LIFE

Changes in sea ice, precipitation, snow regimes, temperatures and tundra productivity are affecting the availability of traditional foods, such as whales, walrus, seabirds, seals, caribou and even berries. In some areas, tundra greening is changing the ranges of the wildlife species that are important to hunters. For example, reindeer herders in Fennoscandia and Russia have experienced
major losses in their herds due to extreme snowfall and rain-on-snow events (when rain falls on snow and freezes, creating an impenetrable layer of ice that prevents the animals from getting to their food).

Although the trend toward warmer springs and the earlier greening of pastures can have positive impacts on reindeer production, these are offset by challenges like increasing wildfire events, industrialization and greater numbers of predators. The safety of food stored in ice cellars has also been affected in some areas by permafrost thaw and higher temperatures. There is a greater occurrence of toxic algal blooms, which pose risks to food security and health. Periods of heavy rainfall and rapid snowmelt can also help pathogens to travel, posing risks to the safety of drinking water.

The warming climate has also affected how residents travel in many parts of the Arctic. For hunters in northwest Greenland, the period when travel by dogsled on sea ice is possible has decreased to three months from five months. Changes in sea-ice cover can also make transportation over ice dangerous. In addition, permafrost degradation and more frequent rain events are making local travel by all-terrain vehicles more difficult in remote settlements in Canada and Russia.

PUTTING NORTHERN COMMUNITIES AT RISK

More than 66 per cent of Arctic settlements are located on ice-rich permafrost—and buildings, roads and other forms of infrastructure are suffering damage as the permafrost thaws in many regions. In fact, the stability of the permafrost has been declining in Arctic Russia since the 1970s, affecting nearly all infrastructure in most settlements on the Taimyr Peninsula. Permafrost slumping (during thawing) also poses risks to transportation infrastructure. Coastal erosion rates in the Arctic are
among the world’s highest, with impacts to communities, property, infrastructure and livelihoods.

Extreme climate events—including wildfires, inland and coastal flooding, and extreme temperature and precipitation events—are having major socioeconomic impacts in the Arctic, and are only expected to become more frequent and severe in the years ahead. More than 85 per cent of Native villages in Alaska currently experience some level of flooding and erosion. Severe floods pose particular risks for remote communities where search and rescue operations may be limited or unavailable. Heavy snowfall and rainstorms bringing high winds have induced avalanches, slush flows and landslides on the Svalbard archipelago over the
past decade.

The incidence of wildfire has increased in Alaska and Siberia. Wildfire destroys ecosystems, puts lives and property at risk, causes economic costs related to fire suppression efforts and damage recovery, and creates health impacts from smoke and related toxins, public anxiety and personal stress.

THE TIME TO ACT IS NOW

Rapid climate change in the Arctic is seriously affecting the lives and livelihoods of Arctic residents. Traditional ways of life, as well as species and ecosystems, may disappear forever if the world does not take swift, decisive measures to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving up temperatures. Although the effects of climate change are being felt now and most strongly in the Arctic, the long-term impacts will be felt far beyond the region.

Arctic states, Permanent Participants (Arctic Indigenous Peoples organizations) and observers to the Arctic Council should individually and collectively lead sustained, ambitious and global efforts to reduce these emissions and fully implement the Paris Agreement. Climate change is a global problem— and if we don’t act now, there will be no second chance.