Canada's northern environment, wildlife and people are facing major changes. Global climate change, caused mainly by our urbanized activities in the south, is predicted to have its greatest impact in this region. Pollution, carried by air and water currents, is accumulating to dangerous levels in distant northern ecosystems and wildlife. Development, related to resource extraction, is gathering momentum and drastically changing the traditional Aboriginal way of life.
Scientists predict that the greatest warming due to global climate change will occur in some northern regions, especially in winter. The western Arctic, for example, is expected to warm by 5° C by the year 2050 and the eastern Arctic is expected to cool slightly. There will be numerous effects, some of which will be felt around the world.
- Sea levels are rising as polar ice melts. If predictions are correct, all summer ice will disappear from the Arctic by the year 2100. The ice sheet of Greenland, alone, contains enough water to raise global sea levels by six to seven metres. Any land near sea level today will be flooded if this occurs.
- Landscapes, ecosystems and wildlife will change. As the land warms and the permafrost melts, the treeline will creep northward. With the new forests will come species (including diseases and parasites) not historically found here. Many northern species may become extinct as they are replaced by southern species better adapted to the new conditions.
- Tundra ecosystems could be reduced by two-thirds, with the Southern Arctic ecozone entirely disappearing from mainland Canada. There is already 18 percent less tundra now than 20 years ago, most of it converted to wetlands as the permafrost melted. If this continues, we can expect a loss of soil stability resulting in erosion, sinking buildings and collapsed roads.
- Barren ground caribou herds are expected to suffer major losses, and the Peary caribou will likely become extinct. As ice disappears, caribou migration routes will be disrupted. The predicted 25-percent increase in precipitation means deeper snow. Caribou and muskoxen will have to use more of their precious energy to travel and to dig up food. Traditional Inuit families who depend on these animals for survival will, in turn, be affected.
- We are currently seeing a loss of pack ice off the coastal regions. Without these key winter feeding areas, the polar bear may become extinct.
- All wildlife — and people — will suffer with an increase in mosquitoes and other biting insects.
- Traditional knowledge of ice and snow is becoming unreliable because conditions are no longer predictable. The way of life that has allowed the Inuit to survive for thousands of years in one of the harshest environments in the world is being undermined and lost.
- Industry brings increased employment opportunities and higher wages to the people living in Canada's North, but development also has its costs.
- Traditional ways of life are being abandoned, and thousands of years of knowledge about the land are being lost.
- As global demand for fossil fuels rise, oil and gas exploration and extraction is increasing. More activity leads to more possibility of damaging this sensitive environment through oil spills and more roads, pipelines and human communities that break up or take over key wildlife habitats.
- Shipping is increasing as previously ice-packed passages open up. If the melting continues, the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic may replace the Panama Canal as a preferred route for shipped goods in the northern hemisphere. The shorter route may reduce global energy needs but it will also bring increased pollution, garbage and disruption of marine mammals in critical habitat areas.
- Tourism, though it brings money into local communities, can have a downside in this ultra-sensitive environment. Waste that is left behind decomposes very slowly in the cold climate. Wildlife encounters, though thrilling for humans, can disrupt animal reproduction and feeding or even be fatal for the animals. Even a simple walk on the tundra can leave a footprint that may last for centuries.
Comparatively speaking, the people living in Northern Canada do not produce much total pollution. Most of it is transported to the North on air and water currents. Traces of pesticides from as far away as Southeast Asia have been found in the tissues of wildlife living in the North. Northern ecosystems and wildlife are particularly susceptible to pollution because:
- The low sunlight and cold temperatures slow down decomposition of chemical pollutants and spilled oil so they last longer in the environment.
- Food chains in Canada's North are good at accumulating and storing contaminants. As plants and animals are eaten, the concentration of toxins builds with each step up the food chain. The many people who still get their food from the land have landed on the top rung of this poisonous ladder.
- The remoteness of Canada's North makes detection, monitoring and clean-up of pollution difficult.
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