Arctic Ecosystems Being Nibbled Away, compiled by a team of researchers from Finland, Denmark and the US, warns that apart from high profile threats to the environment such as proposed drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (see story in this week’s ‘North America’ section), the European Arctic environment is also at risk from small scale impacts.

The report, published in the August edition of Conservation Biology, is the first circumpolar assessment of how small-scale human disturbances affect Arctic ecosystems. It states that, apart from the most controversial threat to Arctic ecosystems – oil and natural gas exploration, which is already highly developed in Northwest Siberia, other threats include mining, military activities, heavy grazing for domestic reindeer and recreational activities such as camping, hiking and off-road vehicle use.

Based on recent existing studies, the researchers evaluated how well Arctic ecosystems recover from human disturbance. The most extreme disturbances completely remove the tundra’s plant layer and only the smallest, wettest patches recovered on their own within 20-75 years. For instance, the report says, dry patches more 0.9 metres across still had bare centres even after 20 years, largely due to wind erosion.

The researchers also found that lasting changes can result from disturbances that leave the plant layer intact, such as the use of heavy tracked vehicles, commonly used in the booming ecotourism trade. Driving the vehicles through an area only once during the summer can be enough to cause long-term damage, such as the death of dwarf shrubs, the rapid draining and drying out of meadows, and the melting of permafrost. While summer traffic is banned in the North American Arctic, winter traffic can also be damaging if the snow is thin, the report says.

Similarly, pedestrian trampling can decrease plant biodiversity, for example favouring willows and rapidly growing grasses over most other plants; and flattening the hummocks and hollows that give geographical diversity – and therefore plant diversity – to the landscape.

“In the increasingly accessible Artic, we need to be wary of relatively small and seemingly insignificant disturbances – some of the most productive landscapes are being slowly nibbled away,” says report author Bruce Forbes of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland. “A wide range of small disturbances resulted in…reduced species diversity. In addition to the more obvious and large-scale effects associated with petroleum development, mining and military activity, the explosive growth of ecotourism is affecting all sectors of the Arctic. We suggest that serious consideration should also be given to the less visible effects of seemingly benign recreational activities that inevitably accompany tourism development.”

According to a recent report by the conservation group WWF, up to 80% of the Arctic will be affected by mining, oil and gas exploration, ports, roads and other developments by 2050 if industrialisation continues at current rates. However, the group holds the high Arctic Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, also known as Spitsbergen, as an example of how these ecosystems can be managed sustainably.

Although a state-owned coal company, Store Norske, had threatened to construct a long-distance road through the ecologically sensitive Reindalen valley from the tiny capital, Longyearbyen, to the settlement of Svea, it backtracked and is supporting the establishment of a new national park in the Reindalen area. At a WWF conference in Longyearbyen earlier this year, there was broad support among representatives of conservation groups, scientific institutions, tour operators and even coal mining companies for the park. At the conference, Robert Hermansen, the Director of Store Norske, told participants that his company now supports Norway’s plans for new national parks and a new environmental law for Svalbard and had given up plans for new roads outside of existing settlements.

In addition, some tour operators requested, and expect, much stricter government regulation of tourist activities to ensure that the growing market does not at undermine the area’s pristine nature.

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