Environmental Issues

With incursions of industry into the Arctic, a number of environmental concerns have come to the fore.

Oil and gas exploration, for example, raise concerns about the integrity of tundra. Heavy vehicles traversing off-road scour the vegetation, leaving tracks of bare ground. Without the insulating cover, the active layer melts deeper into the permafrost than in adjacent places where vegetation is intact. The tracked ground subsides through the process of thermokarst, with trenches forming as the years pass. In some places, petroleum exploration methods actually bulldozed the entire active layer from the tundra so that seismic recordings could be made from the solid top of the permafrost. Such tracks can be seen in many places, extending for long distances across otherwise pristine tundra. The most severely damaged areas tend to be wet, low-centered polygonal ground. Drier areas suffer the onslaught with less apparent damage, even though tracks may remain visible for decades and probably centuries (see Environmental Problems).

The extraction of nonrenewable resources from Arctic sites has created localized and widespread problems. Concern for migratory caribou has been central to conservation issues and oil and gas exploration in Alaska and the Western Canadian Arctic. Seismic exploration surveys, the building of winter haul roads, the installation of exploratory drilling rigs, and the opening of oil and gas fields cannot but have adverse effects on Arctic wildlife, probably in that order of relative importance. In some instances, environmental damage has been exaggerated, as for the unsightly effects of exploratory oil rigs on tundra vegetation and the permafrost. In other situations, occurrences and predictions of environmental catastrophes must not be ignored (e.g., a burst oil pipeline near a major river). Even though mining has been carried out in the Arctic for decades, it has been highly localized until recently. Now, huge diamond mines have been established in Arctic Canada, and the effects of the ground rock dust that flies for many kilometers on vegetation and wildlife have as yet unknown impacts.

It is not that ancient indigenous human influences cannot be found in the Arctic. Areas around dwellings and small villages, long abandoned, are visible as green patches. There, the people fertilized the ground with animal remains, and so on. Deeper, richer soils accumulated, with plants characteristic of enriched sites (including animal dens, sites where corpses of large animals decayed, and where birds roost) being common. Those are the same plants that can be found, for the same reasons, around modern settlements in the north. The environmental issues of Arctic urbanization, indigenous or industrial, include rubbish disposal, sewage treatment and disposal, and water quality. With the volume of waste from modern settlements come problems with wildlife. Notorious are the annual encounters with polar bears, especially famous in Churchill, Manitoba. Moreover, other animals, such as foxes, wolves, and ravens, have become familiar sights around human habitation.

The human population, and industrial activity, is sparse throughout the Arctic. Pollution, though, is ubiquitous. Because the Arctic is a region of the world typified by descending air that originates far to the south, airborne exogenous pollutants accumulate.

Some of the first concerns were for radionucleotides (e.g., strontium-90) generated from testing atomic weaponry. As with strontium-90 and other radioactive fallout, other pollutants such as persistent organics (e.g., dioxins, DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls), heavy metals, petroleum hydrocarbons, and acidifying pollutants (e.g., sulfur dioxide causing acid rain) have polluted the entire Arctic and all the life it contains. These pollutants bioaccumulate as they move through the trophic food chain (see Bioconcentration) and have become concentrated enough that they pose a threat to wildlife and to human health (AMAP, 1998).

Peter G. Kevan

See also Adaptation; Carbon Cycling; Contaminants; Environmental History of the Arctic; Environmental Problems; Freshwater Ecosystems; Large Marine Ecosystems; Marine Biology; Plant-Animal Interactions; Plant Reproduction and Pollination; Primary Production; Trophic Levels; Vegetation Distribution

Further Reading

AMAP, AMAP Assessment Report: Arctic Pollution Issues, Oslo Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), 1988

Danks, H.V., Arctic Arthropods: A Review of Systematics and Ecology with Particular Reference to the North American Fauna, Ottawa: Entomological Society of Canada, 1981 Fuller, W.A. & P.G. Kevan (editors), Proceedings of the Conference on Productivity and Conservation in Northern Circumpolar Lands, Morges, Switzerland: International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 1970 Pielou, E.C., A Naturalist's Guide to the Arctic, Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1994 Remmert, H., Arctic Animal Ecology, Berlin: Springer, 1980 Sage, B., The Arctic and its Wildlife, New York: Facts on File, 1986

Svoboda, J. & B. Freedman (editors), Ecology of a Polar Oasis: Alexandra Fiord, Ellesmere Island, Canada, Toronto: Captus University Press, 1992

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