How is the Arctic defined? Who lives there? And how do the eight nations with Arctic territory – and the indigenous peoples – work out a common plan for the sustainable development and protection of the region? Our overview delivers the basics on this resource-rich and environmentally sensitive area.
Most people define the Arctic as the northernmost part of the Earth that lies above the Arctic Circle (66° 32’ N). Above this latitude the sun doesn’t set on the summer solstice and it doesn’t rise on the winter solstice.
But there are other ways to define the Arctic. Some scientists describe the Arctic as the area north of the limit of tree growth, where lichens and shrubs dominate the landscape. Others define the Arctic based on temperature, including only locations in the high latitudes where the average daily summer temperature does not exceed 10C (50F). While these descriptions may have been suitable in the past, the lines are shifting as the Arctic undergoes rapid climate change due to the buildup of human-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
In 2014, the global concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since record keeping began. Carbon dioxide emissions are the main driver of recent climate change and have risen more than 120 ppm since the start of the industrial period. Scientists have found that Arctic air temperatures are rising at twice the rate of global air temperatures, a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification.
In contrast to Antarctica, the Arctic is not a continent. An ocean lies at the center of the Arctic region, covering an area of 14 million square kilometers (5.4 million square miles) and surrounded by the northern edges of Canada, Russia, Greenland (Denmark), Norway and the United States. Finland, Sweden and Iceland are also considered to be Arctic nations because they have territory that falls within the Arctic Circle, but they do not have coasts on the Arctic Ocean.
The Arctic Ocean is partly covered in sea ice throughout the year. The ice cap grows in the winter and retreats in the summer, usually reaching its maximum extent in February and shrinking to its minimum extent in mid-September. The sea ice typically covers 14–16 million square kilometers (5.4–6.2 million square miles) in the wintertime and approximately 7 million square kilometers (2.7 million square miles) in the summertime, but these areas are shrinking. The minimum sea ice extent in 2015 was 4.41 million square kilometers (1.7 million square miles), the fourth smallest area since satellite observations began in 1979.
Arctic sea ice – sometimes called the planet’s air conditioner – plays an important role in regulating the global climate. The bright white surface of the sea ice reflects roughly 80 percent of the sunlight that strikes it back into space, which keeps the region cool. By comparison, the dark ocean surface absorbs 90 percent of the sunlight.
Satellite data show that both the thickness and the extent of summer sea ice are in decline. With the inclusion of data from 2015, sea ice extent has declined more than 13 percent per decade relative to the 1981–2010 average. Scientists expect that the Arctic Ocean will eventually lose its ice cover completely in late summer – possibly within the next two decades. James Overland, a research oceanographer at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in 2013 that nearly ice-free summers would occur by 2050 but possibly sooner – in the next decade or two. If that happens, we can expect global warming trends and changes in climate patterns to speed up.
The melting Arctic ice has made the region’s oil, gas and minerals more accessible, opened up shipping routes and expanded commercial fishing. It has triggered global interest – and competitiveness – in the region from Arctic nations and those far outside its boundaries.
The Arctic is one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world. Approximately 4 million people live in the Arctic region today. Some dwell in remote communities or small villages. Others gather in cities boasting populations in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
It’s impossible to generalize about the people living in the Arctic. There are indigenous peoples whose ancestors settled in the Arctic thousands of years ago and more recent arrivals who migrated from the south.
Approximately 500,000 people living in the Arctic are part of an indigenous group. They include Saami from the circumpolar areas of Finland, Sweden, Norway and northwest Russia; Nenets, Kanty, Evenk and Chukchi in Russia; Aleut, Yup’ik and Inuit in Alaska; Inuit in Canada; and the Inuit in Greenland. Many indigenous communities have already faced considerable threats to their livelihood and culture due to climate change and development. For example, thin and unstable sea ice can make it dangerous for Inuit to reach long-established hunting or fishing areas while traditional food storage cellars dug into the permafrost are warming and leading to food spoilage in Alaska.
The Arctic Council
The Arctic Council is an international forum made up of the eight nations that have territory in the Arctic – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. It also includes representatives of six indigenous peoples’ organizations as permanent participants: the Aleut International Association, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and Saami Council.
The Arctic Council was created in Ottawa in 1996 to foster cooperation among Arctic nations and indigenous peoples on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection. Today it is the main forum where Arctic nations map out the future of the region, carrying out scientific work, such as on the state of Arctic biodiversity, and producing reports through six working groups: Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP), Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR), Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) and Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG).
One of its noteworthy accomplishments was the release of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment in 2004 that shaped the global view on climate change. This was a detailed report compiled by 300 scientists over four years that showed that climate change in the Arctic was already underway and that even larger changes could occur. For example, glacial melt and river runoff could raise global sea levels and possibly slow the ocean circulation.
Gathering scientists from around the world in a study under the Arctic Council – the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) examined the past, current and projected impacts and indicators on the Arctic environment and its peoples. Many signs point to the fact that the Arctic is one of the places of the World where we most clearly can see global warming happening. Scenarios for the future project warming temperatures, thawing permafrost and tundra, reduced sea ice cover and snow. The traditional way of life for indigenous peoples in the Arctic face challenges, while possibilities are increased shipping and easier access to oil and gas development.
The council has also produced the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic and the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic.
The Arctic Council chairmanship rotates among the eight member states every two years. The United States assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in April 2015 for a two-year term. Its three broad goals are to improve Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship; improve economic and living conditions for people in the Arctic; and to address the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. Canada was the the previous chair and the next chair will be Finland.
In May 2013, the Arctic Council agreed to expand its membership to add six new nations as observer states: China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. These non-Arctic states have economic and trade interests in the Arctic. In all, the Arctic Council has added 32 observers, including non-Arctic countries, nongovernmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations, such as the International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies and the Association of World Reindeer Herders.