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Posted on on April 10th, 2007
by Pincas Jawetz (

UNEP: Adaptation to Climate Change Key Challenge for Arctic Peoples and Arctic
Economy; Thawing Permafrost, Melting Sea Ice and Significant Changes in Natural
Resources Demands Comprehensive Sustainable Development Plan.

GENEVA/NAIROBI, 10 April 2007 – Dramatic changes to the lives and
livelihoods of Arctic-living communities are being forecast unless urgent
action is taken to reduce greenhouse gases, according to the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Its Working Group II predicts wide-ranging thawing of the Arctic permafrost
which is likely to have significant implications for infrastructure
including houses, buildings, roads, railways and pipelines.

A combination of reduced sea ice, thawing permafrost and storm surges also
threatens erosion of Arctic coastlines with impacts on coastal communities,
culturally important sites and industrial facilities.

One study suggests that a 3 degree C increase in average summer air
temperatures could increase erosion rates in the eastern Siberia Arctic by
3-5 metres a year.

In some part of the Arctic, toxic and radioactive materials are stored and
contained in frozen ground. Thawing may release these substances in the
local and wider environment with risks to humans and wildlife alongside
significant clean-up costs.

Warmer temperatures also represent new economic opportunities but also
challenges in the Arctic. Declines in sea ice are likely to open up the
Arctic to more shipping, oil and gas exploration and fisheries.

A comprehensive sustainable development plan is urgently needed for the
region to maximize the opportunities and minimize potentially damaging

The future health and well-being of Arctic peoples is a major question. The
report, part of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment, recognizes that Arctic
communities and indigenous peoples lives and livelihoods are intimately
linked with their environment but that this is already changing.

Inuit hunters are now navigating new travel routes in order to try to avoid
areas of decreasing ice stability that is making them less safe. In the
future, increased rainfall may trigger additional hazards such as
avalanches and rock falls.

Inuit hunters are also changing their hunting times to coincide with shifts
in the migration times and migration routes of caribou and geese, as well
as new species moving northwards.

Some impacts of climate change may improve human well-being. Opportunities
for agriculture and forestry may increase. There is evidence that Arctic
warming could reduce the level of winter mortality as a result of falls in
cardiovascular and respiratory deaths.

But this will have to be set against possible increases in drought in some
areas, the emergence and survival of new pests and diseases, likely
contamination of freshwaters and health and psychological impacts of the
loss of traditional social and “kinship” structures.

However, it is likely that in order for Arctic communities and cultures to
survive and conserve their centuries-old ways of life decisive emissions
reductions will be needed alongside adaptation to the climate change
already underway.

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)
which co-founded the IPCC in 1988, said: “The costs of climate change are
already being paid by the peoples and communities of the Arctic. The report
underlines how this bill is set to rise unless action is taken to cut
greenhouse gas emissions.”

“The communities and indigenous peoples of this region are skilled in
adapting to harsh and often dramatic changing conditions including sharp
fluctuations in the scarcity and in the abundance of land and marine
resources. However, the rapid changes likely in the future may overwhelm
traditional coping strategies. It is thus also vital that communities are
assisted in climate-proofing centuries-old lifestyles in order to survive
and to thrive through the 21st century”, he added.

By the mid-21st century, the area of permafrost in the northern hemisphere
is expected to decline by around 20 per cent to 35 per cent.

The depth of thawing is likely to increase by 30 per cent to a half of its
current depth by 2080.

Permafrost thawing is already having impacts. It is the likely cause behind
the draining away and disappearance of Arctic lakes in Siberia during the
past three decades over an area of 500,000 square km.

The costs of relocating subsiding towns and villages could be high. The
price tag for relocating a village like Kivalina in Alaska has been
estimated to be $54 million.

Marine Resources
Changes in river flows, ice regimes and the mobilization of sediments as a
result of permafrost thawing are likely to have impacts on freshwater,
estuary-living and marine biodiversity upon which local and indigenous
people depend.

Lake trout, a cold water fish, is likely to be affected as will be the
spawning grounds of fish and bottom-living life forms as a result of
increased sediments.

Important northern fish species, like broad whitefish, Arctic char, Arctic
grayling and Arctic cisco, are likely to decline as a result of changes in
habitats and predatory species, perhaps carrying new diseases, moving into
the warming Arctic waters.

Thinning and reduced coverage of sea ice is likely to have important knock
on effects. Crustaceans, adapted for life at the sea-ice edge, are an
important food for seals and polar cod. Narwhal also depend on sea-ice

“Early melting of sea ice may lead to an increasing mismatch in the timing
of these sea-ice organisms and secondary production that severely affects
populations of the sea mammals”, says the IPCC report.

However, more open water and other climate-related factors are likely to
benefit fish stocks like cod, herring, walleye and pollock.

Ten per cent and possibly as much as 50 per cent of the Arctic tundra could
be replaced by forests by 2100. The narrow, remaining coastal tundra strips
in Russia’s European Arctic are likely to disappear.

Meanwhile, climate change is likely to favour pests, parasites and diseases
such as musk ox lung worm and nematodes in reindeer. Forest fires and
tree-killing insects such as spruce bark beetle are likely to increase.

For more information, please contact: Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson, in
Nairobi, on Tel: +254-20-762-3084, Mobile: +254-733-632755, E-mail:
 nick.nuttall at or Michael Williams, UNEP Information Unit for
Conventions, in Geneva, on Tel: +41-22-917-8242, Mobile: +41-79-409-1528,
E-mail:  Michael.williams at style=”text-align: center”>

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