One of the most widespread forms of disturbance throughout the circumpolar Arctic is that caused by tracked vehicles operating off-road. Such vehicles, essentially tanks, first appeared in the Arctic in the late 1940s and 1950s for the transportation of people and equipment in conjunction with military and scientific activities, as well as in and around civilian settlements. Off-road vehicles continue to be used regularly for moving heavy seismic survey equipment. Seasonality is critical and even a single pass by a heavy vehicle during sensitive periods can result in lasting damage. Summer use has been banned in North America since the 1970s, although even winter use can have significant effects when the snow cover is too thin. Summer use is officially restricted in northwestern Siberia, although the rules there are regularly ignored.
In the High Arctic, overall biomass reductions resulting from vehicle ruts more than offset significant and persistent gains among rhizomatous graminoids. In contrast, overall increases in productivity have been reported within the Low Arctic. In the Low Arctic, where damages in mesic areas are slight to moderate and the moisture regime is not changed, most of the original vascular species persist, and species that respond positively to disturbance (e.g., rhizomatous graminoids, willows, and Equisetum arvense) increase. Research has demonstrated that, in general, the pace of natural regeneration of vegetation is considerably slower in the High Arctic relative to the Low Arctic.
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