This is Section 15.1 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment.
Lead Authors: Jim Berner, Christopher Furgal; Contributing Authors: Peter Bjerregaard, Mike Bradley, Tine Curtis, Edward De Fabo, Juhani Hassi, William Keatinge, Siv Kvernmo, Simo Nayha, Hannu Rintamaki, John Warren.
Background and rationale (15.1.1)
The arctic regions share common characteristics such as sparse population, harsh climate, similar geographic features, high latitude, and characteristic seasonal extremes of daylight hours and temperatures. The modern climate record shows that regions of the same high latitude often have very different mean annual temperatures, precipitation regimes, and ecosystems. It is important to incorporate this diversity in any assessment of the current and future impacts of climate change on the health of northern peoples.
In general, arctic regions of the United States, Canada, and Nordic Europe have more economic support than those of the former Soviet Union. As a result, the availability and quality of data on human health status vary widely and are not available for some regions. The evaluation, both current and future, of the impact of climate change on human health is entirely data dependent.
As a result, this chapter (unlike those addressing specific climate issues) cannot address the potential health impact of climate change using a regional or time specific approach.
The ACIA-designated models project climate change relative to baseline conditions (1981–2000) for three 20-year “time slices” (2011–2030, 2041–2060, and 2071–2090) for four arctic regions. The time-slice regional scenario is a useful construct for those ecological components which are not able to quickly relocate or utilize technology to mitigate climate-related impacts, but is not as useful for human populations, where non-climate factors can cause mass relocations over periods of days to weeks.The reactor accident at Chernobyl in 1986 is one such example. Also, economic decisions such as those to develop natural resources (e.g., petroleum, minerals, timber) can bring food, education, and health resources to a region, and may accelerate or mitigate a decrease in numbers of a traditional food species. These changes might result in population growth and an improvement in health status, or the erosion of a community’s cultural base, bringing cultural stress and a deterioration in health status.
This chapter does not attempt to predict health impacts for any specific region, or any specific time frame, for the following reasons.
- Climate models, over prolonged intervals (decades), are uncertain, and thus impacts on people and their communities are also uncertain.
- Humans can adopt strategies to mitigate almost any possible health impact, given sufficient support.
- Levels of governmental, public health, social, and cultural support vary dramatically among circumpolar communities and will continue to fluctuate in the future.
- Over the past four decades, many regions of the circumpolar arctic have shown a warming trend, however significant areas have also shown a cooling trend, such that uniform temperature assumptions can not yet be justified.
This chapter presents a discussion of mechanisms by which climate can influence human health in arctic communities such that these communities might plan appropriate monitoring strategies to support the development of adaptive or mitigation actions. In this way, potential negative impacts might be recognized and mitigated, and potential opportunities might be recognized and exploited.
Health in the circumpolar Arctic (15.1.2)
According to the World Health Organization, health includes aspects of physical, mental, and social well-being and is not simply the absence of disease. In this holistic vision of health, which is very similar to that supported by the many indigenous groups throughout the world, the well-being of individuals and communities is tied to that of their environment. Human health status is a result of the complex interaction of genetic, nutritional, and environmental factors. “Environment” in this context includes the socio-economic, cultural, and physical infrastructure and ecosystem factors. Many of these groups of factors can improve or degrade health status, by enhancing the resilience of a population, or by causing stress. In these instances, the stress can be a direct physical change such as temperature, can take the form of increased prevalence of a disease-causing organism, or be represented by a perceived threat or sense of loss, engendering psychological stress.
Previous reports have concluded that, for the residents of the contiguous United States, climate change will have a small overall health impact, due to the ability of the existing public health system to respond to new threats.This conclusion is unlikely to be true for the North American Arctic, or for arctic residents in many other countries, for the following reasons.
Many arctic residents live in very small, isolated communities, with a fragile system of economic support, dependence on subsistence hunting and fishing, and little or no economic infrastructure.
Rural arctic public health and acute care systems are often marginal, sometimes poorly supported, and in some cases, non-existent.
Culture is often critical to community and individual health, and may be affected by climate change via mechanisms such as the loss of a traditional subsistence food source, which can result in a grief response and severe stress. Climate changes can become a source of illness, injury, and mortality for arctic communities.
The combined result of these factors is that rural arctic residents are often uniquely vulnerable to health impacts from climate change, mediated by a variety of mechanisms. Also, owing to their close relationship and dependence on the land, sea, and natural resources for cultural, traditional, social, economic, and physical well-being, indigenous peoples are also uniquely vulnerable to these environmental changes. It is for these reasons that this chapter emphasizes potential climate impacts on health in small arctic communities, among whose residents many are indigenous.
This chapter presents a brief overview of available data on the current health status of arctic residents, followed by a series of sections describing the potential impact mechanisms of climate change on socio-cultural and socio-economic environments and physical infrastructures as they relate to human health. Sets of indicators are then proposed to prospectively monitor potential climate change impacts on human health. The chapter concludes with recommendations for research and action.
Chapter 15: Human Health
15.2. Socio-cultural conditions, health status, and demography
15.3. Potential impacts of direct mechanisms of climate change on human health
15.4. Potential impacts of indirect mechanisms of climate change on human health
15.5. Environmental change and social, cultural, and mental health
15.6. Developing a community response to climate change and health
15.7. Conclusions and recommendations
- ^WHO, 1967.The Constitution of the World Health Organization. WHO Chronicle, 1:29
- ^Patz, J.A., M.A. McGiihin, S.M. Bernhard, K.L. Ebi, Epstein, P.R.A. Grambsch, D.J. Gubler, P. Rieter, I. Romieu, J.B. Rose, J.M. Samet and J.Trtanj, 2000.The potential health impacts of climate variability and change for the United States: Executive Summary of the report of the health sector of the U.S. national assessment. Environmental Health Perspectives online, http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/topic/global/patz-full.html.