The Arctic: geography, climate, ecology, and people

August 2, 2012, 11:42 pm
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This is Section 1.5 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment
Authors: Henry Huntington, Gunter Weller. Contributing Authors: Elizabeth Bush,Terry V. Callaghan,Vladimir M. Kattsov, Mark Nuttall


This section is intended for readers who are unfamiliar with the Arctic. Summaries and introductions to specific aspects of the Arctic can be found in reports published by AMAP[1], as well as the Arctic Atlas[2] published by the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in Russia. The Arctic: Environment, People, Policy[3] is an excellent summary of the present state of the Arctic, edited by two ACIA lead authors and with contributions from contributing ACIA authors.

Geography (1.5.1)

The Arctic is a single, highly integrated system comprised of a deep, ice covered, and nearly isolated ocean surrounded by the land masses of Eurasia and North America, except for breaches at the Bering Strait and in the North Atlantic. It encompasses a range of land- and seascapes, from mountains and glaciers to flat plains, from coastal shallows to deep ocean basins, from polar deserts to sodden wetlands, from large rivers to isolated ponds.They, and the life they support, are all shaped to some degree by cold and by the processes of freezing and thawing. Sea ice, permafrost, glaciers, ice sheets, and river and lake ice are all characteristic parts of the Arctic’s physical geography.

The Arctic Ocean covers about 14 million square kilometers. Continental shelves around the deep central basin occupy slightly more than half of the ocean’s area – a significantly larger proportion than in any other ocean. The landforms surrounding the Arctic Ocean are of three major types: (1) rugged uplands, many of which were overrun by continental ice sheets that left scoured rock surfaces and spectacular fjords; (2) flat-bedded plains and plateaus, largely covered by deep glacial, alluvial, and marine deposits; and (3) folded mountains, ranging from the high peaks of the Canadian Rockies to the older, rounded slopes of the Ural Mountains.The climate of the Arctic, rather than its geological history, is the principal factor that gives the arctic terrain its distinctive nature[4].

Climate (1.5.2)

The Arctic encompasses extreme climatic differences, which vary greatly by location and season. Mean annual surface temperatures range from 4 ºC at Reykjavik, Iceland (64º N) and 0 ºC at Murmansk, Russia (69º N) through -12.2 ºC at Point Barrow, Alaska (71.3º N), -16.2 ºC at Resolute, Canada (74.7º N), -18 ºC over the central Arctic Ocean, to -28.1 ºC at the crest of the Greenland Ice Sheet (about 71º N and over 3000 m elevation). Parts of the Arctic are comparable in precipitation to arid regions elsewhere, with average annual precipitation of 100 mm or less.The North Atlantic area, by contrast, has much greater average precipitation than elsewhere in the Arctic.

Arctic weather and climate can vary greatly from year to year and place to place. Some of these differences are due to the poleward intrusion of warm ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream and the southward extension of cold air masses. “Arctic” temperature conditions can occur at relatively low latitudes (52º N in eastern Canada), whereas forestry and agriculture can be practiced well north of the Arctic Circle at 69º N in Fennoscandia. Cyclic patterns also shape climate patterns, such as the North Atlantic Oscillation[5], which strongly influences winter weather patterns across a vast region from Greenland to Central Asia, and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which has a similar influence in the North Pacific and Bering Sea. Both may be related to the Arctic Oscillation (see Chapter 2).

Ecosystems and ecology (1.5.3)

Although the Arctic is considered a single system, it is often convenient to identify specific ecosystems within that system. Such classifications are not meant to imply clear separations between these ecosystems. In fact, the transition zones between terrestrial, freshwater, and marine areas are often dynamic, sensitive, and biologically productive. Nonetheless, much scientific research, and indeed subsequent chapters in this assessment, use these three basic categories.

Terrestrial ecosystems (

Species diversity appears to be low in the Arctic, and on land decreases markedly from the boreal forests to the polar deserts of the extreme north. Only about 3% (5,900 species) of the world’s plant species occur in the Arctic north of the treeline. However, primitive plant species of mosses and lichens are relatively abundant[6]. Arctic plant diversity appears to be sensitive to climate.The temperature gradient that has such a strong influence on species diversity occurs over much shorter distances in the Arctic than in other biomes. North of the treeline in Siberia, for example, mean July temperature decreases from 12 to 2 ºC over 900 km. In the boreal zone, a similar change in temperature occurs over 2000 km. From the southern boreal zone to the equator, the entire change is less than 10 ºC[7].

The diversity of arctic animals north of the treeline (about 6000 species) is similar to that of plants[8]. As with plants, the arctic fauna account for about 3% of the global total, and evolutionarily primitive species are better represented than advanced species. In general, the decline in animal species with increasing latitude is more pronounced than that of plants. An important consequence of this is an increase in dominance. “Super-dominant” species, such as lemmings, occupy a wide range of habitats and generally have large effects on ecosystem processes.

Many of the adaptations of arctic species to their current environments limit their responses to climate warming and other environmental changes. Many adaptations have evolved to cope with the harsh climate, and these make arctic species more susceptible to biological invasions at their southern ranges while species at their northern range limit are particularly sensitive to warming. During environmental changes in the past, arctic species have changed their distributions rather than evolving significantly. In the future, changes in the conditions in arctic ecosystems may affect the release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, providing a possibly significant feedback to climate warming although both the direction and magnitude of the feedback are currently very uncertain. Furthermore, vegetation type profoundly influences the water and energy exchange of arctic ecosystems, and so future changes in vegetation driven by climate change could profoundly alter regional climates.

Freshwater ecosystems (

Arctic freshwater ecosystems are extremely numerous, occupying a substantial area of the arctic landmass. Even in areas of the Arctic that have low precipitation, freshwater ecosystems are common and the term “polar deserts” refers more to the impoverishment of vegetation cover than to a lack of groundwater. Arctic freshwater ecosystems include three main types: flowing water (rivers and streams), permanent standing water (lakes and ponds), and wetlands such as peatlands and bogs[9]. All provide a multitude of goods and services to humans and the biota that use them.

Flowing water systems range from the large, north-flowing rivers that connect the interiors of continents with the Arctic Ocean, through steep mountain rivers, to slow-flowing tundra streams that may contain water during spring snow melt.The large rivers transport heat, water, nutrients, contaminants, sediment, and biota into the Arctic and together have a major effect on regional environments.The larger rivers flow throughout the year, but small rivers and streams freeze in winter. The biota of flowing waters are extremely variable: rivers fed mainly by glaciers are particularly low in nutrients and have low productivity. Spring-fed streams can provide stable, year-round habitats with a greater diversity of primary producers and insects.

Permanent standing waters vary from very large water bodies to small and shallow tundra ponds that freeze to the bottom in winter. By the time the ice melts in summer, the incoming solar radiation is already past its peak, so that the warming of lakes is limited. Primary production, by algae and aquatic mosses, decreases from the subarctic to the high Arctic. Zooplankton species are limited or even absent in arctic lakes because of low temperatures and low nutrient availability. Species abundance and diversity increase with the trophic status of the lake[10]. Fish species are generally not diverse, ranging from 3 to 20 species, although species such as Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) and salmon (Salmo salar) are an important resource.

Wetlands are among the most abundant and productive aquatic ecosystems in the Arctic.They are ubiquitous and characteristic features throughout the Arctic and almost all are created by the retention of water above the permafrost.They are more extensive in the southern Arctic than the high Arctic, but overall, cover vast areas – up to 3.5 million km2 or 11% of the land surface. Several types of wetlands are found in the Arctic, with specific characteristics related to productivity and climate. Bogs, for example, are nutrient poor and have low productivity but high carbon storage, whereas fens are nutrient rich and have high productivity. Arctic wetlands have greater biological diversity than other arctic freshwater ecosystems, primarily in the form of mosses and sedges. Together with lakes and ponds, arctic wetlands are summer home to hundreds of millions of migratory birds. Arctic freshwater ecosystems are particularly sensitive to climate change because the very nature of their habitats results from interactions between temperature, precipitation, and permafrost. Also, species limited by temperature and nutrient availability are likely to respond to temperature changes and effects of UV radiation on dead organic material in the water column.

Marine ecosystems (

Approximately two-thirds of the Arctic as defined by the ACIA comprises ocean, including the Arctic Ocean and its shelf seas plus the Nordic, labrador, and Bering Seas. These areas are important components of the global climate system, primarily because of their contributions to deepwater formation that influences global ocean circulation. Arctic marine ecosystems are unique in having a very high proportion of shallow water and coastal shelves. In common with terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems in the Arctic, they experience strong seasonality in sunlight and low temperatures.They are also influenced by freshwaters delivered mainly by the large rivers of the Arctic. Ice cover is a particularly important physical characteristic, affecting heat exchange between water and atmosphere, light penetration to organisms in the water below, and providing a biological habitat above (for example, for seals and polar bears (Ursus maritimus)), within, and beneath the ice.The marginal ice zone, at the edge of the pack ice, is particularly important for plankton production and plankton-feeding fish.

Some of these factors are highly variable from year to year and, together with the relatively young age of arctic marine ecosystems, have imposed constraints on the development of ecosystems that parallel those of arctic lands and freshwaters.Thus, in general, arctic marine ecosystems are relatively simple, productivity and biodiversity are low, and species are long-lived and slow-growing. Some arctic marine areas, however, have very high seasonal productivity[11] and the sub-polar seas have the highest marine productivity in the world.The Bering and Chukchi Seas, for example, include nutrient-rich upwelling areas that support large concentrations of migratory seabirds as well as diverse communities of marine mammals. The Bering and Barents Seas support some of the world’s richest fisheries.

The marine ecosystems of the Arctic provide a range of ecosystem services that are of fundamental importance for the sustenance of inhabitants of arctic coastal areas. Over 150 species of fish occur in arctic and subarctic waters, and nine of these are common, almost all of which are important fishery species such as cod. Arctic marine mammals escaped the mass extinctions of the ice ages that dramatically reduced the numbers of arctic terrestrial mammal species, but many are harvested. They include predators such as the toothed whales, seals, walrus, sea otters, and the Arctic’s top predator, the polar bear. Over 60 species of migratory and resident seabirds occur in the Arctic and form some of the largest seabird populations in the world. At least one species, the great auk (Pinguinus impennis), is now extinct because of overexploitation.

The simplicity of arctic marine ecosystems, together with the specialization of many of its species, make them potentially sensitive to environmental changes such as climatic change, exposure to higher levels of UV radiation, and increased levels of contaminants. Concomitant with these pressures is potential over-exploitation of some marine resources.

Humans (1.5.4)

Some two to four million people live in the Arctic today, although the precise number depends on where the boundary is drawn.These people include indigenous peoples (Fig. 1.8) and recent arrivals, herders and hunters living on the land, and city dwellers with desk jobs. Humans have occupied large parts of the Arctic since at least the last ice age. Archeological remains have been found in northern Fennoscandia, Russia, and Alaska dating back more than 12000 years[12]. In the eastern European Arctic, Paleolithic settlements have been recorded from as early as 40000 years ago[13]. In Eurasia and across the North Atlantic, groups of humans have moved northward over the past several centuries, colonizing new lands such as the Faroe Islands and Iceland, and encountering those already present in northern Fennoscandia and Russia and in western Greenland[14].


caption Fig. 1.8. Locations of indigenous peoples in the Arctic, showing affiliation to the Permanent Participants, the indigenous peoples' organizations that participate in the Arctic Council. Saami Council Aleut International Association Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North Inuit Circumpolar Conference Gwich'in Council International Arctic Athabaskan Council


In the 20th century, immigration to the Arctic has increased dramatically, to the point where nonindigenous persons outnumber indigenous ones in many regions.The new immigrants have been drawn by the prospect of developing natural resources, from fishing to gold to oil[15], as well as by the search for new opportunities and escape from the perceived and real constraints of their home areas. Social, economic, and cultural conflicts have arisen as a consequence of competition for land and resources[16] and the incompatibility of some aspects of traditional and modern ways of life[17]. In North America, indigenous claims to land and resources have been addressed to some extent in land claim agreements, the creation of largely self-governed regions such as Nunavut and Greenland within nation states, and other political and economic actions. In Eurasia, by contrast, indigenous claims and rights have only recently begun to be addressed as matters of national policy[18].

Many aspects of demography are also changing. Over the past decade, total population has increased rapidly in only three areas: Alaska, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. Rapid declines in population have occurred across most of northern Russia, with lesser declines or modest increases in other parts of the North (see Table 1.1).



Life expectancy has increased greatly across most of the Arctic in recent decades, but declined sharply in Russia in the 1990s.The prevalence of indigenous language use has decreased in most areas, with several languages in danger of disappearing from use. In some respects, the disparities between northern and southern communities in terms of living standards, income, and education are shrinking, although the gaps remain large in most cases[19].Traditional economies based on local production, sharing, and barter, are giving way to mixed economies in which money plays a greater role[20].

Despite this assimilation on many levels, or perhaps in response to it, many indigenous peoples are reasserting their cultural identity[21]. With this activism comes political calls for rights, recognition, and self-determination.The response of arctic indigenous groups to the presence of long-range pollutants in their traditional foods is a useful illustration of their growing engagement with the world community. In Canada particularly, indigenous groups led the effort to establish a national program to study contaminants, the results of which were used by those groups to advocate and negotiate international conventions to control persistent organic pollutants[22]. The arguments were often framed in terms of the rights of these distinct peoples to live without interference from afar.The use of international fora to make this case emphasizes the degree to which the indigenous groups think of themselves as participants in global, in addition to national, affairs.

At the same time that indigenous peoples are reaching outward, traditional hunting, fishing, herding, and gathering practices remain highly important.Traditional foods have high nutritional value, particularly for those adapted to diets high in fat and protein rather than carbohydrates[23]. Sharing and other forms of distributing foods within and between communities are highly valued, and indeed create a highly resilient adaptation to uncertain food supplies while strengthening social bonds[24].The ability to perpetuate traditional practices is a visible and effective way for many indigenous people to exert control over the pace and extent of modernization, and to retain the powerful spiritual tie between people and their environment[25].

It is within this context of change and persistence in the Arctic today that climate change and increased UV radiation act as yet more external forces on the environment that arctic residents rely upon and know well. Depending on how these new forces interact with existing forces in each arctic society and each geographical region, the impacts and opportunities associated with climate change and UV radiation may be minimized or magnified[26].The degree to which people are resilient or vulnerable to climate change depends in part on the cumulative stresses to which they are subject through social, political, and economic changes in other aspects of their lives. It also depends in part on the sensitivity of social systems and their capacity for adaptation (see Chapter 17).The human impacts of climate change should be interpreted not in sweeping generalizations about the entire region, but as another influence on the already shifting mosaic that comprises each arctic community.

Natural resources and economics (1.5.5)

In economic terms, the Arctic is best known as a source of natural resources.This has been true since the first explorers discovered whales, seals, birds, and fish that could be sold in more southerly markets[27]. In the 20th century, arctic minerals were also discovered and exploited, the size of some deposits of oil, gas, and metal ores more than compensating for the costs of operating in remote, cold regions[28]. Military bases and other facilities were also constructed across much of the Arctic, providing employment but also affecting population distribution and local environments[29]. In recent decades, tourism has added another sector to the economies of many communities and regions of the Arctic[30].The public sector, including government services and transfer payments, is also a major part of the economy in nearly all areas of the Arctic, responsible in some cases for over half the available jobs[31]. In addition to the cash economy of the Arctic, the traditional subsistence and barter economies are major contributors to the overall well-being of the region, producing significant value that is not recorded in official statistics that reflect only cash transactions[32].

The three most important economic resources of the Arctic are oil and gas, fish, and minerals.

Oil and gas (


The Arctic has huge oil and gas reserves. Most are located in Russia: oil in the Pechora Basin, gas in the lower Ob Basin, and other potential oil and gas fields along the Siberian coast. Canadian oil and gas fields are concentrated in two main basins in the Mackenzie Delta/ Beaufort Sea region and in the Arctic Islands. In Alaska, Prudhoe Bay is the largest oil field in North America 16 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment and other fields have been discovered or remain to be discovered along the Beaufort Sea coast. Oil and gas fields also exist on Greenland’s west coast and in Norway’s arctic territories.

Fish (

Arctic seas contain some of the world’s oldest and richest commercial fishing grounds. In the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, Barents Sea, and Norwegian Sea annual fish harvests in the past have exceeded two million tonnes, although many of these fisheries have declined (in 2001 fish catches in the Bering Sea totaled 1.6 million tonnes). Important fisheries also exist around Iceland, Svalbard, Greenland, and Canada. Fisheries are important to many arctic countries, as well as to the world as a whole. For example, Norway is the world’s biggest fish exporter with exports worth four billion US dollars in 2001.

Minerals (

The Arctic has large mineral reserves, ranging from gemstones to fertilizers. Russia extracts the greatest quantities of these minerals, including nickel, copper, platinum, apatite, tin, diamonds, and gold, mostly on the Kola Peninsula but also in Siberia. Canadian mining in the Yukon and Northwest Territories and Nunavut is for lead, zinc, copper, diamonds, and gold. In Alaska lead and zinc deposits in the Red Dog Mine, which contains two-thirds of US zinc resources, are mined, and gold mining continues. The mining activities in the Arctic are an important contributor of raw materials to the world economy.

Chapter 1: Introduction to the ACIA

1.1  An Introduction to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment
1.2. Why assess the impacts of changes in climate and UV radiation in the Arctic?
1.3. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment
1.4. The assessment process
1.5. The Arctic: geography, climate, ecology, and people
1.6. An outline of the assessment



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Committee, I. (2012). The Arctic: geography, climate, ecology, and people. Retrieved from


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