IntroductionThe Arctic Tundra is the Earth’s coldest, harshest biome. Precipitation is low and infrequent and the climate is windy and bitterly cold. The ecosystem is largely treeless and for much of the year the land is covered in snow, until summer brings a short explosive growth of wildflowers.The average temperature is approximately -10 degrees celsius but the ecosystem still supports a variety of cleverly adapted animal species. There are Arctic foxes, polar bears, gray wolves, caribou, snow geese and musk-oxen, among other birds and mammals as well as a great array of ocean life that lives in the freezing arctic waters. The summer growing season is just 50 to 60 days, when the sun shines 24 hours a day.Due to the delicate balance of the ecosystem, the few plants and animals that manage to survive are essentially clinging to life. They are incredibly vulnerable to even minor environmental changes where the slightest fluctuation could push them from just managing to survive, to not surviving at all.
Some of these changes stem from reduced snow cover and warmer temperatures brought on by global warming. In addition to the threat of climate change the tundra faces many other concerns both now and in the future. These many man-made issues range from hunting to oil and gas exploration but all need to be carefully legislated to defend this land and its inhabitants from further destruction.Threats faced by the TundraThe fragile and delicately balanced nature of the Tundra is due, in many ways, to the harsh, remoteness of its existence. It’s so hard for life to survive in the cold, windy climate that the plants and animals have evolved to perfectly fit these conditions. Therefore if the conditions change even slightly then their specific attributes may no longer see them survive as they do. The remoteness of the Tundra has also been key in limiting the direct human effect on the ecosystem. Historically so few humans have settled or even journeyed into the area that very little direct change has been affected by such things as urbanisation or industry.
It was probably fairly soon after the first outsider first ventured into the Tundra that the first negative effects started to become apparent. In the first instance it was the over-hunting and threat to existence of some of the animals that call the Tundra home. More recently humans have sadly come up with many more direct and indirect ways to threaten this delicate ecosystem. Some of the direct threats to the tundra involve the search for and extraction of previously inaccessible gas and oil deposits. As more drilling operations are established these require more industrial and residential expansion which also negatively affect the environment. There are also indirect concerns brought about by climate change where the melting of ice could be catastrophic not just to the arctic but the entire world.The Musk OxMusk Ox are found throughout the Arctic from North America to Greenland and even in Scandinavia and Russia. They have long, shaggy coats and thick layers of fat which mean they are well adapted to the freezing conditions.
With the help of their cleverly evolved hooves they roam the tundra grazing the roots, mosses and lichens that make up most of their diet. During the summer months they supplement their diet with arctic flowers and grasses newly exposed by the receding ice.In the late 19th and early 20th century, Musk Ox were decimated by hunters who killed them for their hides and meat.
Using their massive bulk and large horns the Ox developed a defence mechanism which involves a circle of adults surrounding their young that is very effective against their natural predators, such as arctic wolves. Tragically this engenius method played right into the hands of human hunters and their dogs who forced the Ox into this tight circle and then picked them off with their rifles. Strict hunting regulations were enforced which allowed numbers to recover somewhat and also reintroductions were made to places where they had previously died out.The Ox’s conservation status is now of ‘least concern’ with the current world population being between 80,000 and 125,000. Most herds now reside in National parks and receive protection, with a large majority of them settling on one of the largest members of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Banks Island. It has also been suggested that over 40% of the world Musk Ox population live in the National Park of North and East Greenland (Berthelsen et al.1993).
There are now no major threats to the species survival but the herds tend to be small and widely scattered, which makes them vulnerable to disease and traditional subsistence hunting. Sadly, due to the savagery of man, trophy hunting is now allowed again, even within the national parks. This is meant to be under strict regulation but legislators but enforcers need to remain vigilant going forward to prevent the existence of these beautiful creatures from once again being threatened.IndustrialisationThe world continues to burn fossil fuels at an ever-increasing rate to provide for the needs of a population that has doubled since 1970. As traditional sources of gas and oil begin to dry up the multinational companies are seeking out new locations in which to drill. As technology develops and the polar ice recedes due to climate change, many previously inaccessible areas are becoming available to those willing to venture into the arctic circle. Energy companies estimate as much as 30% of the earth’s undiscovered gas and 13% of the undiscovered oil may be found in this area. Following the discovery of new deposits, wells and rigs will be constructed to extract the oil or gas.
Refineries will be required near the sites and these will be served by huge pipelines to convey the fuel back to the large population centres. Workers will be needed for all these endeavors who will in turn need to be housed and provided for in new urbanisations. Clearly all this construction will have a massive effect on its location, including all manor of pollution as well as the obvious physical damage. Roads will be built to link these new centres with larger population centres outside the tundra and these roads will inevitably infringe on the migratory routes of some of the animals, such as the Caribou, who journey hundreds of miles each year.Last but not least are the obvious safety concerns of all this extra development, particularly the gas and oil drilling sites themselves.
The consequences of an oil spill in the Arctic would be catastrophic for this fragile ecosystem. Due to freezing temperatures delaying it’s breakdown, oil remain for much longer than in warmer regions. Oil pollution could cause irreversible damage to the animals which inhabit the tundra region, with sea birds being especially vulnerable due to the oil destroying the insulating capacity of their plumage. Seal pups are also being put at risk as they are dependent upon their natal fur for insulation and inland animals, such as the polar bear are also heavily in danger of contamination as they consume oil-exposed marine life such as seals.
Oil spills and large scale disasters are not the only negative impact of the search for fossils fuels north of the arctic circle. Before wells and rigs are even established the companies must spend many months searching for the richest deposits. At sea this currently involves a process called seismic blasting, where ships tow an enormous array of air guns that blast massive explosions of sound. This is done over huge areas of ocean 6 months a year, 24 hours a day and has a disastrous effect on marine life. Sound travels over great distances and with great clarity under water and as such much of the oceans life, particularly mammals, have learnt to conduct much of their existence through the use of sonar.
They mate, feed, evade predators and keep in contact with each other, especially their young, using these sound waves. As companies blast these deafening sounds the oceans animals are left confused, scared and hurt, sometimes to such a state they may never recover. Governments, in bed with “big oil” are allowing this dangerous technique to be used with greater frequency and in new areas while organisations such as Greenpeace continue to fight back.
Even on land there are consequences such as the noise pollution that drilling and exploration can cause. This can disrupt migratory patterns among the life there and as such this also has to be carefully monitored and controlled.In recent years some of Greenland’s largest glaciers have begun to disintegrate due to global warming. The large broken-off sections of the glacier float away in the form of icebergs. These are obviously massive meaning a collision with a tanker or oil rig would almost certainly result in its total destruction. It also means that towing the iceberg to avoid contact with an oil rig would not be possible. The logistics of how to safely evade any of these floating catastrophes would obviously be something new for these companies as they aren’t dealt with elsewhere in the world. Cairn Energy has admitted that the arctic poses extreme challenges but are looking into an oil spill response capability for Greenland.
However reports suggest they have only 14 vessels in the area with relevant equipment compared to the 6500 vessels that were involved in the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.Exxon ValdezIn 1989Global warmingTalk about climate change,now and in the future. Loss of sea ice, permafrost and the locked-in carbon dioxide that is starting to be realised as the ice melts. Don’t forget to mention that with ice melting and migratory routes affected that local people (eskimo types) are now struggling as the caribou that they need to live are disappearing.Polar bearsPolar bears inhabit almost all areas of the tundra region, with approximately 60% living within Canada.
Polar bears are at the top of the food chain with their only predators being humans and each other. Historically they have been hunted commercially and also for their hides, a great prize among trophy hunters. This continued unregulated until 1973 when an accord was signed to regulate practices and to conserve polar bear populations. The Agreement on the conservation of Polar Bears was a landmark agreement involving Canada, Denmark, Norway, USA and Russia and still remains today.Presently the main concern for Polar Bears is loss of habitat and reduced access to prey and breeding sites due to rising temperatures causing sea-ice loss. They rely almost entirely on sea-ice because their main prey, the ringed seal, is highly dependent on it too. The ringed seal is the only food source available to them with a high enough fat content to keep them healthy and sustained through their long hibernation period which can last up to 7 months.Although polar bears are strong swimmers, a reduction in sea ice means that they are being forced to swim for longer distances between ice to catch their prey.
Researchers have sadly reported that due to a lack of ice flows, there has been an increase in cases of Polar Bears drowning from exhaustion. Conversely, if the bears decide to stay on shore then it is likely that they will be forced into fasting until the summer period is over due to the lack of prey available to them. This sometimes leads to starvation and subsequently the death of the polar bear.Human-polar bear interactions are another downside to sea-ice loss.
Scared and undernourished Polar Bears have started venturing southward into residential areas in search of food in Northern communities. This logic also applies to growing tourism in the tundra region, polar bears are inquisitive, curious creatures that get drawn in by sounds and smells coming from campsites and visiting tourists on shore. The consequences of these encounters are usually tragic for both the human and the polar bear.Due to them living in remote and hard to access areas, it is difficult to monitor exact numbers and although there is no specific data from some areas in Russia and Greenland, the ICUN estimates that there are roughly 26,000 polar bears left and as such they are now listed as a vulnerable species. Though they have no general fear of predation, polar bears now face a much greater threat to their existence – mankind.
Lack of sea ice (largely due to climate change) is unfortunately just the tip of the iceberg and other factors including oil and gas exploration, tourisms, mining and shipping are also adding to the loss of this beautiful creature.