The Regional Impacts of Climate Change

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3.1. Introduction

Polar environmental changes are expected to be greater than for many other places on Earth (IPCC 1996, WG II, Section 7.5). The Arctic and Antarctic contain about 20% of the world's land area. Athough similar in many ways, the two polar regions are different in that the Arctic is a frozen ocean surrounded by land, whereas the Antarctic is a frozen continent surrounded by ocean. The Antarctic is thermally isolated by the polar vortex, whereas the Arctic is influenced by seasonal atmospheric transport from the surrounding continents.

The Antarctic, for the purposes of this document, comprises the Antarctic continent, the surrounding Southern Ocean, south of 55S, and the Sub-Antarctic islands (e.g., Campbell Island, Heard Island, South Georgia Islands). It is the driest, windiest, coldest, and cleanest continent and covers around 14 million km2 (UNEP, 1997). It is devoid of trees. Its boundary is sometimes taken to coincide with the Antarctic Convergence, which roughly parallels the mean February air isotherm of 10C and is the northern boundary of the Antarctic marine ecosystem. The area is managed by the Consultative Parties to the Antarctic Treaty to the dedication of science and peace (UNEP, 1997.) The Arctic, for the purposes of this document, is defined as the area within the Arctic Circle; it includes the boreal forests and discontinuous permafrost, although some authors prefer to use the area north of the natural tree line-which coincides approximately with the mean July air isotherm of 10C (Sugden, 1982). The Arctic areas of North America, Asia, and Europe are included here, rather than in other regional chapters.

The polar regions are a zone marginal for the distribution of many species; however, native organisms thrive in terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Apart from research bases, the Antarctic is virtually uninhabited by humans. It is the only continent without indigenous peoples (about 4,000 persons are there for prolonged periods, engaged in scientific research). The Arctic, however, has been populated for thousands of years by a variety of indigenous peoples who have developed ways of life to adapt to the harsh and changing climate, but at very low densities compared to the rest of the world. A number of urban outposts have developed in recent times. There is a distinct contrast and sometimes conflict between intrusive modern society and indigenous culture.

There is little resource use in the Antarctic and surrounding Southern Ocean apart from fishing and tourism. These industries have been increasing in activity over recent years and have considerable potential for growth. Although tourists generally make visits of shorter duration, the number of tourists now is about double the number of scientists. Antarctic tourism is growing rapidly; the expected number of tourists might exceed 10,000 persons in the 1997-98 season (IAATO, 1997). Some local fish populations have been depleted, but the krill population could become a food source even though the maximum harvest has only been on the order of 500,000 tons. There is a multinational approach to natural resources and environmental management, with minerals exploration and exploitation banned by international agreement. By contrast, the Arctic lies within the political boundaries of some of the world's richest and most powerful nations. There is considerable economic activity based around fishing, farming and herding, oil extraction, mining, and shipping. All of these activities are climate sensitive. The Arctic has been a critical strategic area, and there still are considerable defense establishments in the region.

Figure 3-1: Observed annual winter (DJF) temperature anomaly over the Arctic during the period 1900-96.


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