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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Another Threat In The Arctic

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 13 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A United Nations scientist said last week that global warming is destroying the permafrost layer in the Arctic, causing the tundra there to release greenhouse gases far more quickly than expected, threatening both industrial exploitation of the region and the lives of the indigenous peoples.

Svein Tveidtal, a senior scientist of the UN Environmental Program, said that global warming is already causing "tremendous problems" in the Arctic and is likely to cause even more in the future. Rising temperatures there, he said, are causing the melting of the permafrost layer that has absorbed carbon dioxide in the past but now is releasing the kind of greenhouse gases that threaten the ozone layer.

And the release of such gases, Tveidtal said, then leads to even less retention of carbon dioxide in the Arctic, a thinner ozone shield in the upper atmosphere, and still more warming, a pattern that threatens to become an ever more vicious cycle in the first instance for the peoples of the high Arctic and then for the world community as a whole.

Because the destruction of the permafrost layer is likely to lead to a reduction in reindeer populations, Tveidtal said, the indigenous peoples are likely to find their traditional way of life under threat. The Russian Federation alone has some 200,000 such people, and there are also significant communities in Canada, Alaska, and Greenland.

Moreover, the thawing of the permafrost layer will threaten construction of buildings, pipelines, and other infrastructure erected there by outsiders seeking to exploit the region's enormous mineral reserves. Indeed, Tveidtal suggested, the loss of the permafrost layer may make it almost impossible to recover these reserves at current levels of technology.

And finally, what is happening with the Arctic's permafrost will have a spreading impact on the rest of the world not only because it will contribute to the destruction of the ozone layer but also because it may mean that the process of global warming -- over which there continue to be so many debates -- may proceed far more quickly than anyone had thought up to now.

For most of the last several hundred years during which outsiders have ventured into the Arctic, most of them have adopted an almost contemptuous attitude toward both the tundra and the people living there. Indeed, some observers have suggested that tundra is one of the few things almost anything will improve. And governments often have been unwilling to protect local people when money can be made from extractive industries.

Many of the indigenous communities have seen their populations dwindle through disease, alcoholism, and the destruction of their traditional way of life, and, with only a few exceptions -- Canada being the most noteworthy -- the governments have done relatively little to protect these communities. Indeed, the attitude of many in these countries toward the northern peoples has been one of "adapt or die."

And these attitudes have only increased as more and more natural resources -- particularly oil -- are discovered in the region. Pressed by the more numerous populations in the lower latitudes, governments with Arctic populations have often taken the view that the economic needs of the majority should outweigh even the survival of traditional groups.

But the United Nations Environment Program's warning suggests that there are now additional reasons for these governments and indeed the international community to revisit the issue and to recognize that the processes of global warming may now be threatening populations in the temperate climatic regions both directly and even more through the impact of such warming on the Arctic region itself.

Only one wire service carried this story last week, an indication of the general neglect this issue has experienced up to now. But the problems that the story reported suggest that the melting of the permafrost may soon become an issue that no journalistic outlet and no government will be able to avoid.