As global temperatures continue to rise on land and at sea, wild animals and plants are on the move worldwide, looking for conditions they can tolerate. These climate change-driven migrations have been starkly visible in the Arctic for years. As ocean ice cover contracts, reports of species like polar bears and walruses being driven onto land have grown over the past decade. Warming conditions are changing ground cover on the North American tundra, drawing southerly species such as moose and beaver into higher latitudes, where they may in turn drive ecosystem transformations that drive out tundra dwellers like Arctic ptarmigan, and further warm the climate.
Further east, Arctic cod – an important food source for marine mammals, sea birds and other fish species – are moving northward in search of cooler temperatures, being replaced by species from the south, such as capelin in Lancaster Sound, mackerel off the coast of Greenland and beaked redfish in the Barents Sea.
This “shifting geography of life” – the largest in 25,000 years – endangers human health, economic development and food supplies, according to a recent study by an international team of over three dozen scientists. Land-based species are moving poleward at a rate of 10 miles per decade, the researchers noted, while marine species are shifting ranges by 45 miles a decade. “As with other impacts of climate change, species range shifts will leave ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in their wake, radically reshaping the pattern of human well-being between regions and different sectors and potentially leading to substantial conflict,” the researchers recently wrote in Science. But “current global goals, policies and international agreements fail to account for these effects.”
Finnish geographer Tero Mustonen, one of the study’s co-authors, has observed these changes firsthand in the Arctic. The founder of the Finland-based nonprofit Snowchange Cooperative, Mustonen has worked for two decades with indigenous communities in the United States, Canada, Scandinavia and Russia to record their experiences of climate and biodiversity change, and create community-led research and adaptation projects that combine traditional knowledge with Western science.
Mustonen believes that indigenous Arctic cultures can offer guidance for managing oceans and land amid the sweeping changes brought on by global warming.
“We are moving into an era of a profound biodiversity shift,” Mustonen said. “I would argue for the necessity of far more studies, and also the inclusion of traditional knowledge of those people that are living in those places,” which contain “the finer detail of place names, traditional occupancies, day-to-day invasive species.”
Arctic Deeply recently spoke to Mustonen about his research findings.
Arctic Deeply: What did you and your colleagues set out to do in this paper?
Tero Mustonen: When we study climate change or try to describe climate change, we are stuck quite often with what’s commonly known as the weather report, meaning that we might discuss how how many degrees will get warmer, or Paris agreements. We wanted to demonstrate [that] this actually about nature and these species and biodiversity.
Arctic Deeply: How have the past season’s climate extremes affected the indigenous communities you work with?
Mustonen: It’s the coldest spring in a hundred years [in Finland], so we still have ice and snow. Climate change, obviously, will come in many forms, including these cold spells and extreme events out of season. I just came back from [the] Sami area yesterday, and the waters are so cold that the spring spawning harvests are delayed three, four weeks.
Also, the reindeer calves are getting born in tough snow conditions, and many of the herders that I spoke to yesterday were saying that there’s a great concern they might die because there’s no food for the nursing mothers.
In many parts of the Eurasian north, including Siberia and the Finnish Sami areas, the so-called traditional economies, or fisheries, hunting, reindeer herding and gathering economies, are still crucial for the food security and that’s why anything that’s going on will have quite direct impact.
Arctic Deeply: There are some well-documented species on the move, such as the red fox moving northward into the habitat of the Arctic fox, and out-competing it in some places. Are we going to be faced with accepting the extinction of some Arctic species, when they have nowhere left to go?
Mustonen: Yes, we are. We will see and are seeing the loss of regional habitats of some of the species.
We will never get back to a 1950s Arctic. What we can do in this new Arctic, this new world, is a rediscovery of the relations that indigenous communities and cultures still have [with nature]. They may be one of our best chances of survival. At first, it may be a philosophical question, but it’s becoming a very practical question, quite fast, in terms of looking at what’s going on globally today.
Arctic Deeply: Is there a particular arena of management or regulatory practice right now that you think is most in need of reform, in terms of managing biodiversity shifts in the Arctic?
Mustonen: The business as usual for conservation of parks, or establishment of new parks, may have a role to play. We don’t have to let go of everything that’s working from the past in terms of keeping and maintaining what’s often known as core areas, or the iconic landscapes and central locations for the Arctic habitat.
But alongside that, we need to do something new. How can we conserve and make good decisions regarding biodiversity on the move? How do we create national parks or conservation areas that are dynamic?
We in Snowchange are mostly interested in the practical side of conservation and co-management. That’s why I would put forward the idea of these buffer zones, these kinds of transition zones around the heartlands. We know from scientific data that there are central ecosystems and habitats that we should be keeping intact. For example, carbon sinks. Maybe we should be able to expand these kinds of buffer zones and transition zones around those heartlands to respond exactly to this question of species on the move. But the question is not easy, and it hasn’t been solved anywhere.
I would argue a step further to say, as has been put forward by the Pew Charitable Trusts in the U.S., that perhaps we should be preserving the Arctic Ocean from industrial fishing.
One thing that hasn’t been discussed at all in conservation of the Arctic are invasive species. If we are seeing the beaver or the sable moving into the tundra, or other animals moving from the north boreal into the tundra habitat, when do we be clear as scientists or a global society that they are here to stay? Because they are becoming native species of that new, dynamic and novel ecosystem.
Arctic Deeply: How could governance of natural resources in the Arctic be improved?
Mustonen: We need specific and strong recognition of protected areas that are also friendly or welcoming to the indigenous people.
We should be implementing the idea of free, informed, and prior consent. There are Siberian communities that don’t have a lot of access to cash flow, don’t have a lot of access the global economy and construct a viable reality based on traditional livelihoods. Why can’t they have that, and why can’t we preserve these territories if they want to do that? In Russia there is a concept of “territories of traditional natural resource use.” I think that’s a wonderful concept for certain places to be left alone or left for the purposes of maintaining these unique and endemic cultures.
I think we need a new, profound relationship with nature that’s more sustainable, and in tune with the things that are underway. That’s why the indigenous cultures and languages, and the diversity of life that’s also part of the human side of the Arctic, is essential. They have been able to preserve ways of being with ecosystems that are thousands of years old, and have been lost in most parts of the planet. And ultimately, isn’t this a crisis of losing that connection with nature? So the kind of governance, the kind of economies, the kind of science that we are doing is built on one view of nature and the planet. If there are solid and rooted ways of providing other narratives that can have a dialogue with our dominant one, I think we should be listening by now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.