Over the past few decades, the Arctic region has been exposed to change from a variety of sources including, climate change, increased economic activity, jurisdictional conflicts, attempts of militarization and exposure to radiological material.[1] The Arctic Council once established in 1996 to facilitate cooperation and coordination among the environmental and human development of the Arctic States has become a player in geopolitics. The safety of the eight Arctic states — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States of America — rely on the management of resources, natural environment, and nuclear materials within the Arctic Circle.[2] These interrelated issues at hand need to be further addressed to prevent potential severe impacts to the Arctic and surrounding regions.

Climate Change

arctic-116013_1280The degradation of the Arctic Circle is most closely linked to climate change which has resulted in a steadily shrinking polar ice cap.[3] The melting of sea ice in the Arctic is far from being a recent development. In fact, it has been the face of climate change from the very beginning and there is an overwhelming amount of evidence in support of this.[4] Reduced ice cover is thought to amplify Arctic warming due to the ice-albedo feedback.[5] This positive feedback mechanism states that as temperatures increase, snow and ice decrease, decreasing surface albedo and ultimately increasing the amount of sunlight absorbed by Earth.[6] This reinforces the initial warming effect that caused the melting of ice caps in the first place. However, recently scientists have found that not only is the arctic sea ice getting smaller, it is also significantly thinner[7]. This is a key point because thinner ice is susceptible to increased melting rates. In fact, University of Washington researchers estimate sea ice has thinned 65 percent in 40 years and in September of this year when ice is at its thinnest, that number will increase to an alarming 85 percent.

Melting sea ice results in more than just a decreased and thinner amount of ice. The melting phenomenon has the potential to alter local ecosystems. The Arctic ecosystem itself has long been in transition to becoming an entirely different ecosystem.[8] A variety of ecosystems have undergone extensive change due to anthropogenic effects. The Arctic is now part of this ever growing list. Along with an altered ecosystem, a degraded ecosystem also means altered atmospheric and ocean patterns and increased sea levels.[9]

Economic activity

Decreased sea ice in the Arctic region has allowed increased transport routes to open up.[10] Even in the past decade, there has been a noticeable increase in human activity in an area once untouched by humankind. Increased cargo, transport, tourism, military activity, and commercial fisheries compromise the delicate balance of marine mammal ecosystems in this area.[11] Noise pollution and the entanglement of marine mammals in fishing gear are two of the most commonly observed effects of increased economic activity in this region.[12] Noise pollution can even alter entire patterns of migrating whales and create shifts in prey due to a lack of main prey availability.[13]

What is important to note here is that increased economic activity and trade routes are directly related to climate change because the more the sea ice continues to melt, the more trade routes become available. The irony is that an increase of transport routes exacerbates the melting, which further perpetuates climate change with a release of pollutants into the environment.

Jurisdictional conflict and the threat of militarization

Melting sea ice creates more changes than merely increased economic trade routes and environmental degradation. In the past few decades, there have been an increasing number of disputes among how to manage the newly and continuing “de-iced” Arctic Circle.[14] There are currently already global laws of the sea and regional laws that determine how to effectively manage the Arctic region including the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation (AMEC) and the Arctic Council. So far the Arctic states have been interested in the maintenance of the region, but delineation of the region had been restricted by frozen ice caps. As previously discussed, melting sea ice could change this and create a need for further delineation of jurisdictional regions in the Arctic which will demand multiple governments and countries working together.[15] In particular, in light of the potential economic benefits of oil and gas exploitation, the Arctic States are preparing to stake their claims. The United States as well as Russia have increased their military presence in the region to demonstrate capabilities to substantiate their respective claims to sea-lanes and natural resources. From planting mini-flags[16] to securing shipping routes[17], the Arctic states are claiming their shares in the Arctic Circle making it a key region in geopolitic

Radiological waste
arctic-ocean-81062_1280
The Arctic has long been home to nuclear facilities. In fact, there are 90 nuclear reactors in Northwest Russia and 200 more are waiting for decommission.[18] Additionally, the number of nuclear power plants just along the Kola Peninsula in the Arctic contains a greater concentration of nuclear materials than in any other region of the world.[19] Past dumping of nuclear material by the Soviets in the Arctic and the current accumulation of radioactive waste in Russia creates a significant security threat to bordering states.[20] The nuclear reactors awaiting to be decommissioned pose a future threat due to the risk of radioactive material accidentally being released in to the environment which could disrupt environmental ecosystems and human activity in the area.[21]

Challenges surrounding the management of radioactive material in the Arctic require involvement from multiple levels of government.[22] Currently Russian agreements on nuclear safety with multiple countries including France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Britain, USA, AMEC, the Arctic Council and various defense departments are collaborating to decrease the safety threat. Solving the issue of radioactive material in the Arctic can only be achieved through increased funds, better technology, tighter environmental laws, as well as safety and security plans in case there is a nuclear disaster. The tragedy of Fukushima serves as a terrifying reminder of what can happen.

Whereas one study claims that the radioactive contamination in this area is not significant enough to cause regional harm and background levels of radiation levels have been reported.[23] Other studies from previous radioactive releases throughout the world (e.g. in the Irish, Kara, and Barents Sea) show that radioactive material is still harmful even if diluted — it deposits itself in marine sediment and can climb through the food web as easy as when a seal eats a contaminated fish. So while the mass dumping of during the Cold War has not been linked to ecological harm in this area yet, we learned a long time ago that “dilution is not the solution to pollution”.[24] Regardless, it is clear that because of the existence of nuclear waste in the Arctic, there is still a potential for a nuclear disaster in the future that could severely impact the Arctic States and surrounding regions.[25]

Additionally, a number of factors could impact how past or future radioactive material are dispersed throughout the Arctic such as temperature, precipitation, and melting sea ice[26]. In order to create safety assessments of exposed Arctic areas, risk calculations must include these abiotic aspects.

Conclusion

The Arctic region is on the verge of a new development era. The future of this region relies on the Arctic States; an informal group called the Arctic 5 consisting of Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States signed the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration to pledge their cooperation to keep the Arctic a sovereign region.[27] In other words, protecting the Arctic ecosystem is in the hands of those who have the potential to exploit this area with the expansion of oil and gas, mineral mining, fisheries extraction, shipping and tourism, and nuclear waste handling.[28] It is clear that the current nuclear facilities in the Arctic pose a significant threat onto boarding states. The jurisdictional disputes in combination with growing militarization could make the region a focal point of future conflicts. The question remains whether the Arctic Circle will be able to withstand the pressures or whether the challenges of climate change exacerbated by increased economic activity, environmental degradation, and continued radioactive exposure prove to be the crucial crack in the ice.

[1] Baklanov, et al. (2013). Airborne risk, regional vulnerability and possible accidental consequences from nuclear sites in the European Arctic and Sub-arctic. Український гідрометеорологічний журнал, (12), 87-94.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lawrence, D. M., Slater, A. G., Tomas, R. A., Holland, M. M., & Deser, C. (2008). Accelerated Arctic land warming and permafrost degradation during rapid sea ice loss. Geophysical Research Letters, 35(11).

[4] Thompson (2015) Arctic Sea Ice Is Getting Thinner, Faster. Climate Central. Accessible online: http://www.climatecentral.org/news/arctic-sea-ice-getting-thinner-faster-18726  & IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.

[5] Lawrence, D. M., Slater, A. G., Tomas, R. A., Holland, M. M., & Deser, C. (2008). Accelerated Arctic land warming and permafrost degradation during rapid sea ice loss. Geophysical Research Letters, 35(11).

[6] Curry, J. A., Schramm, J. L., & Ebert, E. E. (1995). Sea ice-albedo climate feedback mechanism. Journal of Climate, 8(2), 240-247.

[7] Thompson (2015) Arctic Sea Ice Is Getting Thinner, Faster. Climate Central. Accessible online: http://www.climatecentral.org/news/arctic-sea-ice-getting-thinner-faster-18726  & IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.

[8] Morse, N. B., Pellissier, P. A., Cianciola, E. N., Brereton, R. L., Sullivan, M. M., Shonka, N. K., … & McDowell, W. H. (2014). Novel ecosystems in the Anthropocene: a revision of the novel ecosystem concept for pragmatic applications. Ecol. Soc, 19(2).

[9] Thompson (2015) Arctic Sea Ice Is Getting Thinner, Faster. Climate Central. Accessible online: http://www.climatecentral.org/news/arctic-sea-ice-getting-thinner-faster-18726  & IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.

[10] Burek, K. A., Gulland, F. M., & O’Hara, T. M. (2008). Effects of climate change on Arctic marine mammal health. Ecological Applications, 18(sp2), S126-S134.

[11] ibid

[12] ibid

[13] ibid

[14] Baklanov, et al. (2013). Airborne risk, regional vulnerability and possible accidental consequences from nuclear sites in the European Arctic and Sub-arctic. Український гідрометеорологічний журнал, (12), 87-94.

[15] ibid

[16] Singh, A. (2013) The Creeping Militarization of the Arctic. The Diplomat. Online accessible: http://thediplomat.com/2013/10/the-creeping-militarization-of-the-arctic/

[17] Carafano et al (2011) EUCOM Should Lead U.S. Combatant Commands Defense of National Interests in the Arctic. The Heritage Foundation Report. Online accessible: http://thediplomat.com/2013/10/the-creeping-militarization-of-the-arctic/

[18] Stokke, O. S. (2014). 6 International environmental governance and Arctic security. Geopolitics and Security in the Arctic: Regional Dynamics in a Global World, 121.

[19] ibid

[20] Grossman, E. (2011). Radioactivity in the Ocean: Diluted, But Far from Harmless. Yale Environment 360 Report. Online accessible: http://e360.yale.edu/feature/radioactivity_in_the_ocean_diluted_but_far_from_harmless/2391/

[21] Baklanov, et al. (2013). Airborne risk, regional vulnerability and possible accidental consequences from nuclear sites in the European Arctic and Sub-arctic. Український гідрометеорологічний журнал, (12), 87-94.

[22] ibid

[23] Stokke, O. S. (2014). 6 International environmental governance and Arctic security. Geopolitics and Security in the Arctic: Regional Dynamics in a Global World, 121.

[24] Grossman, E. (2011). Radioactivity in the Ocean: Diluted, But Far from Harmless. Yale Environment 360 Report. Online accessible: http://e360.yale.edu/feature/radioactivity_in_the_ocean_diluted_but_far_from_harmless/2391/ and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov/nrmrl/wswrd/wq/stormwater/bmp.html

[25] ibid

[26] Becker, J. K., Lindborg, T., & Thorne, M. C. (2014). Influence of climate on landscape characteristics in safety assessments of repositories for radioactive wastes. Journal of environmental radioactivity, 138, 192-204.

[27] Baklanov, et al. (2013). Airborne risk, regional vulnerability and possible accidental consequences from nuclear sites in the European Arctic and Sub-arctic. Український гідрометеорологічний журнал, (12), 87-94. http://www.polarisk-group.com/blog/polarisk-reaction-denmark-greenland-claim-north-pole-un-clcs

[28] Koivurova, T., & VanderZwaag, D. (2007). The Arctic Council at 10 years: retrospect and prospects. University of British Columbia law review, 40(1), 121-194.