The Arctic presents some of the harshest conditions on the planet but is home to unique and fragile communities. Plants that are dormant for most of the year blossom during the brief Arctic summer. Vast numbers of birds, including over a hundred species of waterfowl and waders, breed and then migrate all over the world. Animals, such as polar bears, arctic foxes and seals, breed and then remain to over-winter.
Polar bears used to be widely hunted for their skins and meat. By 1970 their numbers had fallen below 10,000. In 1973, Canada, Denmark (which governs Greenland), Norway, the USA, and what was the USSR signed the International Agreement on Conservation of Polar Bears and Their Habitat. The treaty protects the polar bears' feeding and breeding grounds and their migration routes. It also bans the capture of polar bears, except by scientists working to preserve the species, and by the Inuit, who are allowed to hunt only a certain number each year, and are banned from doing so when bears are pregnant or with their cubs.
The countries have established reserves where polar bears are completely protected. The international agreement also states that all five nations must ban polar-bear hunting from aircraft and large motorized boats, conduct and co-ordinate management and research efforts, and exchange research results and data. Since 1973 the polar bear population has risen again to between 20,000 and 40,000.
Hunting is not the only threat to Arctic wildlife. In recent years, warmer Atlantic Ocean water has penetrated the Arctic Ocean basin. Arctic ice cover and salinity have declined as the ice-cap has melted. Permafrost soils in Alaska, Canada and Russia are thawing. The area of Arctic ice is shrinking as a result of climate change, causing reductions in ice algae, which live beneath the ice and form the base of the Arctic food chain. This will affect fish, seals, whales and polar bears. Polar bears are already suffering from the loss of their hunting grounds on ice-shelves. Global warming will also cause forests to move north, replacing the Arctic tundra, affecting birds, such as the endangered red-breasted goose (see right) that breed in the Russian tundra.
Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are produced by industries all over the world. They are wafted to the Arctic by wind and sea. Arctic wildlife is exposed to DDT (a pesticide), PCBs (from electronic equipment), and dioxins (from plastics). POPs are not excreted by animals, but accumulate in their fatty tissue. Those highest up the food chain, such as seals and polar bears, are most severely exposed. These chemicals can affect fertility and damage the immune system. Heavy metals, including mercury, arsenic, and lead are also carried to the Arctic.
One of the biggest threats to wildlife comes from drilling for oil and gas, which involves an extensive infrastructure of pipelines, roads, and harbors, all of which can disrupt animal migration routes, and fragment ecologically rich areas. They also bring the risk of oil spillage, as does the increase in shipping in the region that is expected as a result of the shrinking ice-fields. Russia’s claim to 463,000 square miles (1.2 million sq km) of land beneath the ice-cap on the grounds that it is an extension of its own continental shelf, if successful, would increase the possibility of under-sea mining in the region.
Collaboration between polar nations to address these wider problems is co-ordinated by the Arctic Council. The deeper causes of many of the problems facing the Arctic, such as global warming and pollution, lie much further to the south, in the industrialized nations, and can only be tackled there.
Have a great animal video we should know about? Want to contribute content to Jeff Corwin Connect Email us here