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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- As Arctic Warms

Washington, 7 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Scientists reported this week that global warming is pushing up temperatures in the land areas of the Arctic region faster than anywhere else on earth but pointed out the climate changes there are affecting not only the indigenous populations but countries located far from the north pole.

Olav Ornheim, who directs the Norwegian Polar Institute, said on 5 June that "temperatures in the continental Arctic are rising more sharply than anywhere else we know about on the earth." He acknowledged that global warming may be having a similar impact on the Antarctic but noted that there are too few measurements being taken there to be sure.

Rising temperatures in a region historically defined by its cold climate is destroying much of the indigenous flora and fauna and making life difficult for the many indigenous peoples. Inuit groups in Canada, Russia, Greenland, the Nordic countries, and the United States are being forced to change their traditional way of life as the animals they have hunted in the past die out or move beyond the range of human habitation.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who is the incumbent president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference said that rising temperatures in the region are "adding extra stresses" for the approximately 150,000 people who live in the high Arctic. She noted that hunters are "falling through the ice a lot more frequently" and that some of them are suffering sunburns for the first time in their lives.

Even more intriguing, some of these groups are turning to agricultural pursuits that had been completely impossible when the climate was colder. But that change in economics is having an impact on the cultures of these communities, further weakening groups that already have been affected by the onslaught of larger and more powerful outside groups and governments.

For much of the world, these changes in the lives of a relatively small part of the human family would be of largely ethnographic interest were it not for the fact that the changes in the Arctic not only have had an impact on other regions but presage even more dramatic changes elsewhere in the coming decades.

Paradoxically, the increased temperatures in the Arctic appear to be on their way toward lowering the temperature of the Gulf Stream in the north Atlantic and that change is already leading to colder temperatures in much of western Europe, something few people who are concerned about global warming would have expected.

But beyond that, the melting of the ice cap -- and it has shrunk in size by an estimated three percent over the last decade alone -- is already pushing water levels up around the world. And that in turn is disrupting coastal breeding grounds of many animals and in some places threatening the homes and businesses of people thousands of miles from the Arctic Circle.

Many scientists like Norway's Ornheim and activists like Canada's Watt-Cloutier are certain that these changes are the result of the emission of greenhouse gases by industrialized countries. And their conclusions are being echoed by environmental advocates around the world. Indeed, many of these activists are already invoking the Arctic experience to pressure governments in temperate zones to change their policies.

But other researchers argue that this recent increase in temperatures resembles the brief rise in Arctic temperatures after the last Ice Age. They note that the changes, while enormous in their ultimate implications, are still relatively small and could be reversed by the as yet uncertain changes of the earth's climate as a whole. And they suggest that there is no reason to overreact to what is happening in the north.

While that debate goes on, however, the people of the high Arctic are already suffering the greatest shock to their cultural survival since businesses and governments from the south penetrated into their lands more than a century ago. And if the climate does not change, the Inuit may pass from the scene long before the debate about why they are now suffering is ever resolved.