Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

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16.3.2 Adaptation Potential and Vulnerability

Parts of the Arctic and Antarctic where water is close to its melting point are highly sensitive to climate change, rendering their biota and socioeconomic life particularly vulnerable. Adaptation to climate change will occur in natural polar ecosystems mainly through migration and changing mixes of species. This may cause some species to become threatened (e.g., walrus, seals, polar bears), whereas others may flourish (e.g., fish, penguins). Although such changes may be disruptive to many local ecological systems and particular species, the possibility remains that predicted climate change eventually will increase the overall productivity of natural systems in polar regions.

For people, successful future adaptation to change depends on technological advances, institutional arrangements, availability of financing, and information exchange. Stakeholders must be involved in studies from the beginning as well as in discussions of any adaptive and mitigative measures (Weller and Lange, 1999). For indigenous communities following traditional lifestyles, opportunities for adaptation to climate change appear to be limited. Long-term climate change, combined with other stresses, may cause the decline and eventual disappearance of communities. Technologically developed communities are likely to adapt quite readily to climate change by adopting altered modes of transport and by increased investment to take advantage of new commercial and trade opportunities.

Except in the Antarctic Peninsula, the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean probably will respond slowly to climate change; consequently, there will be less obvious impact in this region by 2100. Nevertheless, these areas are vulnerable because climate change could initiate millennial-scale processes with the potential to cause irreversible impacts on ice sheets, global ocean circulation, and sea-level rise. Antarctic drivers of sea-level rise, slowdown of the ocean thermohaline circulation, and changes in marine ecological habitats will continue for several centuries, long after GHG emissions are stabilized.

16.3.3. Development, Sustainability, and Equity

Distinctive patterns of development in the Arctic arise from the special nature of northern communities. The region is marked by decentralized administration and the presence of relict military establishments. The main forms of resource use are oil, gas, and mineral mining (e.g., lead, zinc, gold, diamonds), ecotourism, fishing, and traditional hunting and gathering by indigenous peoples. Further development of these resources is likely. Maintenance of existing infrastructure is likely to be more costly. Transportation may be affected as permafrost thaws and ice disappears. Waste disposal strategies also will have to change. Reduced sea ice will change strategic defense situations, especially for navies of the large powers flanking the Arctic. Sovereignty issues are of concern because of confusion over northern boundaries, the increased likelihood of territorial disputes as ice gives way to open water, and new northern sea routes create new trade patterns. Changes in sea ice and easier navigation may bring new policy initiatives, and improved sea access will greatly increase ecotourism. Overall, there will be increased human activity in the Arctic.

There are large regional differences across the Arctic in development, infrastructure, and ability of people to cope with climate change. Increasingly, Arctic communities are sustainable only with support from the south. Indigenous peoples are more sensitive to climate change than nonindigenous peoples. Their homelands and hunting habitats will be directly affected, and they cannot easily retreat to less affected areas. Some native peoples may be able to adapt, but probably at the expense of traditional lifestyles. Nonindigenous peoples also are vulnerable where links with the south are broken by changes in the physical environment and altered political circumstances. Their lifestyles require high capital investment, which will have to be maintained or even increased for them to be adaptable to climate change. With climate change, economies that rely on support from the south may become more expensive because of disrupted land-based transport, and this may not be sustainable. However, new transport opportunities, growing communities, and easier mining will create new wealth—but only for those who move away from traditional lifestyles.

In Antarctica, future use of the continent is governed by the Antarctic Treaty, and there are no permanent residents. With regard to policy issues, changes in the climate may mean less sea ice, easier access for ecotourism, and increased pressure on the environment. Sustaining the Antarctic's pristine nature may become more difficult.

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