For years, temperatures in northern Canada have been rising at a rate higher than that of southern parts of the country. The annual mean temperature in the region is warming faster than many parts of the world, experiencing an increase of roughly three times the global mean warming rate in the past half century.
The people who call Canada’s northernmost communities’ home are being threatened by the impacts of the warming temperatures. The impacts are already being observed as distribution ranges of marine populations appear to be shifting, resulting in changes to local biodiversity. It is putting at risk the Inuit peoples’ ability to maintain traditional harvesting practices and culture in Canada’s north. To protect their traditional way of life and maintain existing Arctic biodiversity, action must be taken to mitigate climate change impacts.
Climate isn’t the only potential threat to Arctic biodiversity. Mineral and oil and gas exploration and exploitation, some of which are now more accessible due to reductions in ice, are driving new development in the region and providing new economic opportunities to communities of the North. The impact that these activities may have on regional wildlife requires diligent monitoring in collaboration with Inuit communities to determine if these activities are impacting wildlife and subsistence harvesting opportunities.
Safeguarding Arctic Biodiversity
In order to protect polar biodiversity, a better understanding of the impacts that climate change is having on currently present species and new species expanding their range into polar waters is required.
The Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum of Arctic nations and peoples that works to address issues in the region, has committed to taking action to protect the biodiversity of the region. They are doing so by taking an ecosystem-based approach:
“The Arctic Council has developed a framework for implementing an ecosystem approach to management. In the context of the Arctic Council this means comprehensive and integrated management of human activities based on the best available scientific, traditional and local knowledge about the ecosystem. The Council aims at identifying and taking action on factors that are critical to the health of ecosystems – with the goal of achieving sustainable use of ecosystem goods and services and maintaining ecosystem integrity.”
The Arctic Council’s approach includes significant monitoring of activities to ensure they can respond to sudden changes in the Arctic ecosystem. This includes monitoring of marine, freshwater, and terrestrial biodiversity, while also implementing an Arctic Coastal Biodiversity Monitoring Plan.
Business in the Arctic Region are also stepping up their efforts to protect Arctic biodiversity. WSP recently worked with a mining client on Baffin Island to monitor the potential impact of their shipping operations on the marine environment, including the impact on narwhal. Studies are conducted at different scales to attempt to identify potential project-specific impacts on marine mammal populations versus changes related to other ecosystem stressors such as climate change.
As global actions work to help reduce emissions impacts on the North, there are additional initiatives that can be taken to protect the biodiversity that sustains northern communities.
There is a need to continue to build sustainability and resilience in the ecosystem while empowering indigenous communities. Ongoing baseline research activities to map and track the rate and scale of biodiversity changes are helping countries understand what further actions are needed. The continued promotion of transboundary research and management collaboration will be key in protecting this sensitive ecosystem.