Globaalimuutoksen tutkimusprofessori
PhD Bruce Forbes

Human-Environment Relations in Arctic Ecosystems


  • Global change presents great challenges to circumpolar countries. 
  • It comprises elements of both indirect climate-driven and more direct anthropogenic or human-induced change.
  • Threats to the sustainability of arctic social and ecological systems include rapid changes in:
    • Climate (snow cover, vegetation, permafrost, fire, insect outbreaks) 
    • Land-use
      • Mineral and petroleum extraction, cutting of timberline forests (e.g. North America, Eurasian Arctic)  
      • Large herbivore management (e.g. Fennoscandia, Russia, Alaska and Canada)
    • Socio-economic/legal systems (employment in changing industries, health/demographic shifts, land-tenure/property rights)
  • An inability or unwillingness to mitigate many of the above changes obliges us to examine the adaptive resilience that often characterizes human-environment relations in the Arctic.
  • Draw lessons from comparisons between N America and Eurasia using the common threads of climate, petroleum and Rangifer, the genus that includes caribou and reindeer.

In recent years we have seen a heightened interest in the role of the Arctic in the global system. Global change is now a major part of the European research agenda with significant funding. The vast majority of the published studies focus on climate variation, especially the main drivers or causal agents (e.g. AO, NAO), their effects on ecosystems, and feedbacks to the atmosphere. As an example, warming can lead to large insect outbreaks, which kills forests, leading to the thawing of permafrost.

While the impression in the media is that global warming is relatively uniform, in fact not all sectors of the Arctic are currently experiencing a warming trend. If one is interested in ecosystem effects, it is perhaps more accurate to think in terms of regional ‘hot spots’ and probably much more effective to focus our research efforts in areas most likely to be experiencing rapid change now or in the near future.



The focus on climate change and feedbacks is important, in part, because arctic ecosystems contain large stocks of belowground carbon and methane. These are stored in permafrost or frozen ground. Since the 1960s, when parts of the Arctic began to warm significantly, many tundra ecosystems went from being ‘sinks’ to ‘sources’ of carbon and methane.

As permafrost warms and thaws, it ceases to store greenhouse gases and instead emits them to the atmosphere. The atmospheric input of methane from permafrost regions has been estimated to be almost 25% of the total emissions from natural sources globally. Methane is many more times potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The concern is that as the current warming releases more greenhouse gases, climate warming will accelerate even more rapidly.  

Yet, we have to keep in mind that global change concerns not only climate, but also changes in land-use. Direct human effects on arctic ecosystems may be even more important than climatic change in the next few decades. These direct effects include disturbances associated with resource exploitation and altered grazing regimes due to changing patterns of herbivore management. Recent models acknowledge that land management policies (e.g., fire suppression, reindeer herding) have as much or more effect on northern vegetation as expected changes in climate, but human land-use is still under-represented in most models.

Land-use change I

Ongoing industrialization 1950-2000
The land area affected directly and indirectly by infrastructure such as roads, transportation corridors, pipelines, airports, powerlines and dams has been recently mapped by the GLOBIO project under UNEP.

Ongoing industrialization 2000-2050
The Arctic 2050 Scenario estimates that the land area affected by anthropogenic disturbance may increase from ca. 15% to more than 50% within 50 years, resulting in serious social, ecological and economic impacts (Nellemann et al. 2001).

In an effort to confront this situation, concerted actions and funding for international multidisciplinary research in Europe - combining natural, physical and social sciences - have grown greatly in recent years. Specifically, the EU’s 4th and 5th Framework Programmes have fostered a more direct role for stakeholders by explicitly supporting participatory approaches to research. An example of this is our recent project “The Challenges of Modernity for Reindeer Management” (RENMAN).

In the RENMAN project, funded under the 5th Framework during 2001-2004, we have investigated land management in northern Fennoscandia and NW Russia. In terms of extensive land-use, reindeer can have profound impacts on ecosystems. Visible here is the absence of lichens due to long-term trampling/grazing on subarctic Finnish fjells. Regular meetings with RENMAN scientists and local stakeholders, in this case reindeer herders, served to break down the barriers between the different groups, regarding the language and concepts surrounding global change and the management of reindeer.


Rapid changes in climate   

Locals’ comments on climate- related vegetation changes in N America (Kofinas et al. 2003):

  • More woody vegetation (willows) now in the Mackenzie River Delta than fifty years ago (Aklavik, NWT)
  • Lakes and Mackenzie Delta wetlands are “drying up”, especially in Crow Flats located north of Old Crow (Yukon)
  • Treeline moving north near Arctic Village (NE Alaska)
  • More scrubby-brush (dwarf birch) on south-facing slopes  (Arctic Village, NE Alaska)

Indigenous peoples in western countries seem to be more aware of the specter of climate change and have even made specific suggestions with regard to future research. At the same time, involvement of indigenous peoples in natural science research and the valuing of local or traditional ecological knowledge have a much longer history in North America than in Europe.

“Sámi fear that climate change may contribute to changes in snow conditions and therefore in the accessibility of winter pastures for reindeer. Equally fundamental to us is the question about the possible impact on the growth of non-forage vegetation, which will ultimately reduce the quality of pastures” (Turi 2000).


Rapid changes in land-use, socio-economic and legal institutions

In contrast, among reindeer herders in northern Russia, impacts other than climate appear to be of more immediate concern and the overall situation has been described as a ‘crisis’ at the Human Role in Reindeer/Caribou Systems Workshop (Krupnik 2000). This has lead to what has been described as ‘passive’ rather than ‘active’ adaptation among Nenets to the many and drastic changes (Klokov 2000).

In recent years some prominent research groups have made a plea to focus on sustainability not from a perspective of growth and predictability but instead as a matter of instability and change. Social and ecological systems are inherently dynamic and equilibrium is the exception rather than the norm. It is thus adaptive capacity and resilience that engender sustainability.


Land-use change II

A great deal of arctic research funding in North America and Europe is now allocated for global change studies, in particular climate change. Yet, as startling as some of the reported climate-related ecosystem changes are, for many indigenous groups in northern Russia they pale next to the socio-economic and legal upheaval that has taken place since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As an example, the rapid and largely unregulated industrial development of the Russian Arctic contrasts with the more stringent regulatory environment in North America by an order of magnitude. The debate is no longer about ‘if’ Russia’s arctic petroleum can be exploited but, rather, ‘how soon’. Former state monopolies are urgently raising capital now via shares traded in international stock markets.

Russia is planning to construct a large oil pipeline and oil terminal in Murmansk, along the country’s northern coast and with access to the Barents Sea. American oil companies are eager to participate in the project. If such cooperation is successful, the project may be completed much earlier than planned. In an energy seminar that was recently held in St. Petersburg, Russia’s Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref observed that in the best-case scenario, Russian crude oil may pass through the Murmansk pipeline and terminal to the United States already in 2007. Finland’s role in this process has received minimal press coverage and no real analysis, as argued in an opinion editorial to Helsingin Sanomat in October 2003. Few people outside of Russia understand the environmental and social implications of industrial development in such ‘remote’ areas. At the local level, indigenous peoples feel that meaningful partnerships have yet to be realized (Forbes 2003).

New pipeline construction is proceeding quickly across the east European Arctic and northwest Siberia at the same time as the Northern Sea Route is being opened to tanker shipping. This exemplifies the process of globalization, yet it is far from merely an issue of global economics. Direct and indirect impacts on social and terrestrial ecological systems to date are extremely significant regionally, with great potential for marine/atmospheric feedbacks from, e.g. thawing permafrost, accelerated carbon efflux, increased river runoff. On the one hand, there is complete physical destruction of the plant-soil cover over vast areas. Sand and gravel quarries often cover several square kilometers. On the other hand, we see rapid transformation of the hydrological, chemical, permafrost and nutrient regimes in otherwise intact vegetation. Here, dust affects moist acidic tundra along roads in northwest Siberia.

These issues will be addressed in a new Finnish Academy project during 2004-07: ENvironmental and Social Impacts of Industrialization in NOrthern Russia. ENSINOR will encompass geography, anthropology (including TEK) and biology and will involve three PhD students and two scientists. One question will be, how do we account for the cumulative effect of local impacts? We know that small-scale, low-intensity disturbances can accumulate in space and time to achieve relevance at the regional scale. In North America, impacts like off-road vehicle traffic have been effectively banned since the 1970s. A similar ban in Russia is virtually ignored and the laws are unenforced. The resulting damages are cited by both indigenous peoples and scientists as regionally significant.

A related issue that is receiving close scrutiny now in Alaska is the pronounced warming since the early 1970s, when the current rules for oil exploration were drafted. The number of days when the ground is frozen and the snow is deep enough to handle seismic survey equipment has been cut virtually in half from 200 to just over 100 days. Despite similar warming in NW Russia, this remains a non-issue there. In NW Russia, losses to the petroleum industry in the last 20-30 yrs have reportedly pushed an increasing number of animals onto progressively smaller parcels of land leading to widespread pasture degradation.


Rapid changes in socio-economic and legal systems

In addition to these ecosystem impacts, industrial development can also lead to health and demographic problems (Pika & Bogoyavlensky 1995). Compared to their North American counterparts, Russia’s arctic indigenous peoples lack political clout (Osherenko 2001). Unlike in North America, to date there has been no serious discussion in Russia of indigenous rights to ownership of land. As a result, local people are often in practice denied rights to fish, hunt and access pastureland. Title to land is therefore likely to be one of the critical factors for indigenous cultural survival (Osherenko 2001). Furthermore, under the general tendency to develop regional legislation in Russia, even the newest laws and jurisdictions - including protected areas - seldom account for the ethnic or economic specificity of the many and varied indigenous territories (Klokov 2000; Jernsletten and Klokov 2002).

In order to better characterize the effects of recent trends in high latitude climate, it is necessary to understand not only the burgeoning raft of quantitative data on bio-physical parameters, but also the arguably diminishing pool of traditional ecological or local knowledge. Qualitative data based on participatory approaches to research derive from a time slice of the past 30-50+ years, within the lifetime of active or retired people who have lived their life on the land and sea full-time or seasonally. However, intimate ecological knowledge is not a universal among all northern peoples. Technological, economic and demographic trends have made documentation of the many different ways of knowing about reindeer an increasingly urgent task. Local and traditional knowledge in regions characterized by more widespread forms of land use can perhaps help to partition the effects of climate change from effects wrought by natural or managed shifts in the abundance and density of living resources.


In conclusion

  • A focus on climate change has come to prominence in arctic research, meaning that land-use and other socio-economic drivers are often under appreciated as critical components of global change. In truth, however, one cannot study e.g. treeline dynamics in Fennoscandia or Russia without accounting for humans and herbivores. 
  • Threats to the sustainability of arctic social and ecological systems include rapid changes in: (i) Climate and (ii) Land-use and (iii) Socio-economic and legal systems.
  • Management of any living resource is therefore about people as much as it is about individual species, populations or plant or animal communities, if not moreso. 
  • Participatory approaches to research and management are relatively new in Europe and Russia compared to North America, where co-management has been around for decades. Local people can have detailed ecological knowledge and need to have a meaningful role in regional resource management as well as in policy-relevant research programmes.
  • Sustainable development under global change requires building adaptive capacity to enhance ecological as well as socio-economic resilience.


Literature cited

Forbes, B. 2003. Arktiset öljykentät tuhoavat luontoa (Arctic oil fields destroy nature). Helsingin Sanomat 13 October 2003, p. A5.
Jernsletten, J.-L. and K. Klokov. 2002. Sustainable reindeer husbandry. Arctic Council/Centre for Saami Studies, Tromsø.
Klokov, K. 2000. Nenets reindeer herders on the lower Yenisei River: traditional economy under current conditions and responses to economic change. Polar Research 19:39-47.
Kofinas, G. et al. 2003. Impacts of climate change on North American migratory caribou: herd specific assessments and application of tools to evaluate public policy options. Available at .
Krupnik, I. 2000. Reindeer pastoralism  in modern Siberia: research and survival in the time of crash. Polar Research 19:49-56.
Nellemann, C., L. Kullerud, I. Vistnes, B. Forbes et al. 2001. GLOBIO Global methodology for mapping human impacts on the biosphere: the Arctic 2050 scenario and global application. UNEP/DEWA Technical Report 3, 47 pp.
Osherenko, G. 2001. Indigenous rights in Russia: is title to land essential for cultural survival? Georgetown International Environmental Law Review 13: 695-734
Pika, A. & D. Bogoyavlensky. 1995. Yamal Peninsula: oil and gas development and problems of demography and health among indigenous populations. Arctic Anthropology 32: 61-74.
Turi, J.M. 2000. Native reindeer herders’ priorities for research. Polar Research 19:131-133.