On the Edge

by Kathryn McCann


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




Modern man's inability to live in harmony with nature is exemplified in few places on Earth more clearly than at the poles. These formerly pristine environments are coming increasingly under threat, putting the natural lifestyles and the very existence of several unique species in jeopardy. Are we going to be responsible for taking polar wildlife to the brink of extinction?

For millennia following their arrival in the Arctic from Asia, the Inuit people hunted whales, seals, polar bears and other creatures to survive. Although their level of hunting was significant, it was always sustainable. From the seventeenth century, European whaling ships became a regular presence in Arctic waters, providing work for many Inuit men as well as the opportunity for trade. But by the early twentieth century, when the industry took a dramatic downturn, whaling, combined with the fur trade, had decimated arctic wildlife to such an extent that the Inuit found it difficult to return to their traditional ways.

The delicate balance of life in the Arctic and the Antarctic is now under further man-made attack in the form of global warming, pollution from oil, DDT and other chemicals, and over-fishing.

Just a few examples of how polar wildlife is affected by modern man's impact on the environment are detailed below.

Krill, a general term for several species of open-ocean crustaceans, form the second link of the food chain in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. They, and the phytoplankton they feed on, are very sensitive to variations in temperature so they are likely to be amongst the first species to be severely affected by increasing temperatures caused by global warming. Krill provide a major source of food for seals, whales, birds and fish, some of which depend on it entirely. Baleen whales, such as the grey, humpback and blue whale, which need to eat enormous quantities of plankton and krill to survive, would be severely affected as their sole source of food gradually disappears.

Krill are also under threat from plans to exploit them as a new food source for humans. Russia and Japan are already fishing for krill and have plans to intensify.

Polar Bear
Polar bears, which are found in Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, Russia, Greenland and Norway, have long been hunted for their luxuriant coats. By 1970 there were found to be less than 10,000 left. Since 1972 when Canada, Denmark, Norway and the USSR signed the International Agreement on Conservation of Polar Bears and Their Habitat, numbers have increased to around 25,000.

However, polar bears would be particularly affected by the new threat of diminishing ice in the Arctic, as sea ice plays an integral role in their technique for catching their main food source, seals. Early melting of snows in the spring could threaten polar bear cubs, which need the protection provided by snow dens for their first several months of development. These changes could force polar bears southwards into Canada, where they are already coming into conflict with humans.

Polar bears, even those living far away from industrialised areas, have also been found to have high concentrations of chemical pollutants in their bodies. The build-up may affect not only the life expectancy of individual bears but also their chances of reproducing successfully.

Alaska's 19 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a protected area, has been under threat of oil development since 1960. Development would mean not only the disturbance of drilling but also the building of roads and airstrips and the laying of above ground pipelines with the inherent risk of spillage and consequent pollution.

The refuge is home to polar bears, lynxes, wolves and seals but of all its inhabitants, those which are most likely to be affected are its heard of 129,000 Porcupine caribou. The culture of the native Gwich'in people is inextricably intertwined with the existence of the caribou and they still depend on the herd for food, clothing, medicines, shelter materials and tools.

The US Senate has rejected the latest proposal for drilling for oil in the Refuge, but on 10th April this year the House of Representatives accepted an amended proposal to limit oil exploitation to a 2,000 acre area of the coastal plain - the caribous' calving ground. The Gwich'in people are awaiting the results of a plea they have submitted to the UN Commission on Human Rights to prevent this "cultural genocide".

Ironically, the oil supply in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be exhausted within six months and would reduce US oil imports by less than 2% during that time.

A build-up of the highly toxic chemical DDT and other Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) has been found in the bodies of seals in the Arctic and Antarctic. The chemicals, carried to the poles by sea currents, do not break down naturally and accumulate in seals' blubber layer, damaging their immune systems and causing fertility problems in females.

Hunting is also an ever-present threat to seals. According to anti-fur charity Respect for Animals, seal hunting has actually increased over recent years. They estimate that 2003 will set a 400-year record with 350,000 seals killed.

In 1983 the EU banned import of products made from the young pups of hooded seals (bluebacks) and harp seals (whitecoats) and, 10 years later, Canada brought hunting regulations into line. However, as soon as baby hooded seals begin shedding their juvenile coats after 15 months and baby harp seals after only 10 or 12 days, they can legally be killed. In 2001, a team of independent vets in Canada discovered that an astonishing 42% of seals were still alive when skinned.

Seals, like polar bears, are dependent on sea ice for their natural way of life. There is already a notable increase in drowning of seal pups, forced to take to the water too soon due to early melting of the ice.

Over the last 200 years, whale numbers have dropped by around 99% (The Ecologist, October 2003). In 1986, a moratorium on commercial whaling, imposed by the International Whaling Commission, came into effect. Illegal whaling has persisted and improvement in whale numbers has been slow to materialise. Nevertheless, Iceland has recently resumed hunting of minke whales, ostensibly for "scientific purposes" (to check the contents of their stomachs to try to gauge the impact they are having on the declining cod stock) and after they have carried out their checks the whales will be sold on for meat. On 10 September the UK presented a demarche condemning this decision to the Icelandic government on behalf of 23 countries, but so far there has been no reversal.

Human interactions with whales can be unintentionally harmful. Beluga whales in Arctic waters have been found to have difficulty communicating due to the noise of icebreakers, which affects their ability to breed, and development in coastal areas where whales come to breed has meant fewer and fewer places where they can mate and give birth undisturbed.

Fortunately many communities formerly involved in whaling are now finding an alternative source of income in whale watching trips for tourists, which provide the additional benefit of raising public awareness.

Many of the birds to be found at the poles are migratory, heading there to breed in the spring and summer. Most of them spend the major proportion of their lives at sea where they come into contact with several man-made threats.

Oil spillages and leaks, illegal cleaning of tankers and motorists pouring used engine oil down the drain result in large floating slicks out at sea. The oil appears to seabirds like calm patches of water, encouraging them to come down to rest. Their feathers become coated and, unable to fly, they are doomed to starvation. In polar conditions oil takes 100 times longer to break down than in temperate waters.

Long, unweighted fishing lines up to 200 km long, with sometimes 20,000 hooks bated to attract fish, also draw birds, presenting the possibility of being caught and then pulled under the water and drowned. Driftnets also trap diving birds such as shearwaters along with fish. Despite a UN moratorium passed in 1992 restricting driftnets to a maximum size of 2.5km, fishermen are still using driftnets larger than the Millennium Dome. In the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland, seabird eggs are still harvested, diminishing the populations of many species and seriously threatening the survival of some.

The already endangered red-breasted goose is at risk of disappearing completely as the permafrost on its Arctic tundra breeding grounds melts with increasing temperatures, allowing forest to advance northwards. Hundreds of species of waders and other waterfowl could lose their breeding grounds as wetlands are flooded.

Penguins, like seals, have been found to be carrying POPs in their blubber layer. DDT has been discovered in Emperor Penguins living in the remotest reaches of Antarctica. It has also been detected in their eggs.

On 27 August 2003, following a 21-day chase through Antarctic waters, Australian customs officials finally boarded a Uruguayan trawler suspected of illegal fishing. The boat was found to contain nearly 85 tonnes of endangered Patagonian toothfish, worth $68,000 US dollars in the Asian market where it is highly sought after. If current fishing levels persist, the toothfish is likely to be on the verge of extinction by 2007.

Perhaps surprisingly fish are amongst the creatures most affected by acid rain. Sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides entering the atmosphere mix with rain and snow to form acids. The Arctic, lying downwind from industrialised areas of the USA and Europe, is particularly vulnerable. Salmon stocks in Nova Scotia, Norway and Sweden, where they are already threatened by over-fishing, have been found to be affected by high acidity levels and poisons washed out of the soil by the acids. A sudden drop in pH can kill hundreds of fish when acid snows melt in the spring. The acid also affects adult salmons' sense of smell, impairing their ability to find their breeding grounds.

Oil pollution has also been found to affect fish, causing abnormalities in developing embryos and nerve damage in larvae.

Wildlife on Thin Ice

Arctic ice is thinning and may soon disappear completely during the summer months. Can we afford to stand by and allow this to happen?

Arctic summers are getting longer and for every extra day the ice is becoming 4cm thinner. These disturbing findings were published in the October 2003 Issue of Nature magazine. According to the study, carried out by UK scientists at UCL and the Met Office based on analysis of satellite data gathered over 25 years, Arctic ice will eventually disappear during the summer months unless the trend in global warming is halted.

The conclusions of this research are backed up by submarine surveys, which have suggested that Arctic ice has thinned by as much as 40% over the past 40 years. Another study, the EU-funded Arctic Ice Simulation Experiment, has predicted an 80% reduction in summer Arctic ice cover by the end of the twenty-first century (The Ecologist, October 2003).

Polar species likely to be severely affected by the increasing melt include polar bears, seals, fish and hundreds of varieties of birds (as already described above). However, it is not only the inhabitants of the Arctic and Antarctic that would be affected - other serious implications of polar melt include a potential 55-metre rise in sea level, which would cause widespread havoc across the globe.

The Kyoto Protocol (a revised version of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention of on Climate Change) is designed to reduce global warming gas emissions from industrialised nations by an overall 5%. The Protocol, if it comes into force, could be instrumental in the slowing of human-induced global warming.

The US emits more greenhouse gases than any other nation, but has refused to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol. In 2001 Russia agreed to ratify, but has not yet made the final commitment. Until it does, the Protocol cannot come into force and this most powerful tool in the fight against global warming remains ineffective.

It is too late to undo much of the damage already wreaked on the Polar Regions. However, we can all do something to help prevent the situation deteriorating. Together we might be able to make a difference.

Here are a few examples of ways to help slow global warming:


J. H. Greg Smith (1986) Eskimos - The Inuit of the Arctic. Hove: Wayland.
Richard Mackay (2002) The Atlas of Endangered Species. London: Earthscan.
Michael Bright (1987) Pollution and Wildlife. London: Aladdin.
The Ecologist, October 2003.

© Kathryn McCann 2003. Kathryn is a freelance writer with a particular interest in environmental issues. Her client list includes IT Power (renewable energy consultancy), Bill Dunster Architects (creators of zero fossil energy development, BedZED), and Manu Guides Association (campaigning against unsustainable tourism development in the Peruvian rainforest). She has written magazine articles and press releases as well as advertisements and marketing material for print, radio and the Web. Tel: +44 1276 471998 Mobile: 07956 426821 E-mail: Kathryn@katcreative.co.uk.



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