Winners and losers of Arctic climate change

In the spring of 2005, a Siberian city hosted an event that would have been unthinkable a decade before: an auction of large quantities of mammoth tusks that local people had unearthed over the preceding few summers. Until they finally became extinct 4,000 years ago, huge numbers of these creatures had roamed parts of Europe, Asia and North America, but not much trace of them was to be found anywhere except in the Arctic, where the ice has preserved their remains. However, over the past few years the ice has started to thaw so rapidly that these relics from the Ice Age are becoming very much easier to find. Other relics from earlier ages, such as the bones of dinosaurs, have also been found here and elsewhere north of the Arctic Circle, most notably in Alaska.

Government representatives watched proudly as 50 tonnes of tusks - with a street value of about $25,000 - went on sale. 'There are those who say that to sell the riches of the republic abroad is a bad thing', argued Tatiana Gladkova, a provincial minister for entrepren-eurship and tourism, 'but the problem is, if you don't gather the tusks and bones in time they start to decompose. So we've decided, better to make money than to let these riches go to waste'. Gladkova knew that for many nomadic tribesmen this booming market represented an opportunity to make money, and this was why, under a recent law, they had been allowed to collect what they found and then sell up to half a tonne to licensed traders. Most of the merchandise was sold to Japanese and Indian buyers, who are adept at using mammoth ivory as decorative jewellery. One particularly large tusk fetched $2,000.10

Situated more than 3,500 miles east of Moscow, and six time zones ahead, the Autonomous Republic of Yakutia (or Sakha as it is officially known) lies north of the Arctic Circle. Much of the ground surface in the Yakut Arctic is permanently frozen, but here the active layer covering the permafrost is starting to melt, leaving rich pickings for traders in the lucrative ivory trade. And many others are cashing in on a boom in tourism sparked by the more agreeable climate. Since the 1970s, the number of tourists visiting the region has increased by nearly five-fold, and every year around 1.5 million visitors are taken by cruise ship, bus and plane to places that were considered impenetrable wildernesses not long ago.

Of course, this influx sometimes poses serious risks and causes damage. This is not only because to reach the Arctic the visitors are creating the very carbon dioxide emissions that cause so much environmental damage; it is also because in some places, such as Ny-Alesund in Norway's Svalbard archipelago, they are leaving an eco-trail that has disrupted scientific efforts to gather data from the region, while elsewhere the accumulation of garbage has become a serious problem for local authorities. Around 80,000 tourists now arrive in Svalbard every year - an increase of one-third in just half a decade - and the constant trail of visitors is wearing down the vegetation on the surrounding islands. Local officials are also concerned that one of the many cruise ships could cause a serious oil spillage.11

Nonetheless some locals are doing well out of the tourist trade. In 2000, a United States official pointed out that over the preceding 12 months 'visitors spent almost $1 billion in Alaska, and tourism employed over 20,000 persons directly and over 30,000 indirectly; about three-quarters of these were Alaskans. Nearly one in ten jobs puts tourism up there with commercial fishing in terms of employment opportunities for Alaskans'. She added that 'tourism also shares another very important similarity to commercial fishing; there are opportunities and potential opportunities throughout Alaska from Anchorage to the smallest, remotest village or region'.12

But not many of those who live within the Arctic Circle are reaping the benefits of global warming. While the big Arctic thaw is bringing the best of times for some of the region's indigenous population, there are many more for whom it is bringing the worst. For example, most of the native peoples of Siberia (among them the Eveni, Evenki, Dolgane and Yukaghir peoples) have always relied on reindeer, fishing, hunting and horse-breeding to provide them with income, food, transport and clothing. But since the early 1990s many have found that their traditional ways of life are increasingly threatened.

It was at this time that their reindeer started to die in much greater numbers at particular times of the year. Although no one is sure of the reason, it seems that the warmer climate is bringing more rainfall, which in turn freezes more easily in the very places where the reindeer have always found the lichen and other mosses that they feed upon. Not only that, but the animals are increasingly preyed upon by wolves that are quick to exploit the changing landscape, finding perfect cover in the sprawling forests. The indigenous nomads and semi-nomads who live in the region, making up around a quarter of

Yakutia's million-strong population, are also confronted by numerous other challenges: the melting of sea ice is swelling rivers and flooding villages, and many of the lakes used by local people for fishing are being drained by a number of newly formed underground streams.

In short, many traditional ways of life in this particular quarter of the Arctic Circle are under threat. Many people have already migrated southwards in search of a new life, learning the Russian language and new skills, and many more are likely to leave their traditional homeland in the years ahead.

The same effect is as pronounced for the local Inuit people in other parts of the Arctic Circle, such as northern Canada and Alaska. In 2003, representatives of Alaska's 13,000-strong Inuit population launched a legal challenge to the Bush administration, claiming that its failure to ratify the Kyoto Treaty and cut America's carbon dioxide emissions amounted to a gross violation of their human rights. In Alaska and their other traditional habitats (around 30,000 in Greenland and at least 45,000 in Canada) the Inuits claimed to be 'bearing the brunt of climate change'. As their spokesperson put it, 'without our snow and ice our way of life goes. We have lived in harmony with our surroundings for millennia, but that is now being taken away from us. We are an endangered species'.13 Instead, as another representative of Greenland's Inuit population has said, a vital link between man and nature is in the process of being ruptured: 'We fear that valuable knowledge will be lost among hunters with regard to how the environment behaves, a sense of the ice and snow formations, how animals behave and hunting practices if we continue to experience this warming in the Arctic. This is valuable information that users of nature know from first-hand experience.'14

Wherever it is felt, global warming is bound to have an impact as varied as it is complex, but everyone agrees that the Arctic is changing rapidly and that the effects of this change will be profound and far-reaching on those who live within the region and beyond.

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