IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Indirect impacts of climate on the health of Arctic residents

Climate variability will have a series of more complex, indirect impacts on human-environment interactions in the Arctic (Berner et al., 2005). Local and traditional knowledge in nearly all regions records increasingly uncharacteristic environmental conditions and extremes not previously experienced (e.g., Krupnik and Jolly, 2002). Evidence suggests that an increase in injuries among northern residents associated with ‘strange’ or changing environmental conditions, such as thinning and earlier break-up of sea ice, are related to trends in climate (e.g., Lafortune et al., 2004).

Climate change in the Arctic during El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events has been associated with illness in marine mammals, birds, fish and shellfish. A number of disease agents have been associated with these illnesses (e.g., botulism, Newcastle disease). It is likely that temperature changes arising from long-term climate change will be associated with an increased incidence of those diseases that can be transmitted to humans (Bradley et al., 2005). Many zoonotic diseases which currently exist in Arctic host species (e.g., tularemia in rabbits, rodents, muskrats and beaver, and rabies in foxes; Dietrich, 1981) can spread via climate-controlled mechanisms (e.g., movement of animal populations). Similarly, the overwintering survival and distribution of many insect species that act as vectors of disease are positively impacted by warming temperatures and may mean that many diseases reappear, or new diseases appear, in Arctic regions (Parkinson and Butler, 2005). The examples of tick-borne encephalitis (brain infection) in Sweden (Lindgren and Gustafson, 2001), and Giardia spp. and Cryptosporidium spp. infection of ringed seals (Phoca hispida) and bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) in the Arctic Ocean are evidence of this potential (Hughes-Hanks et al., 2005).

Subsistence foods from the local environment provide Arctic residents with cultural and economic benefits and contribute a significant proportion of daily requirements of several vitamins and essential elements to the diet (e.g., Blanchet et al., 2000). Wild foods also comprise the greatest source of exposure to environmental contaminants. The uptake, transport and deposition behaviour of many of these chemicals is influenced by temperature, and therefore climate warming may indirectly influence human exposure (Kraemer et al., 2005). Through changes in accessibility and distribution of wildlife species, climate change in combination with other social, cultural, economic and political trends in Arctic communities, will be likely to influence the diet of circumpolar residents.

Transitions towards more market food items in Arctic indigenous diets to date have been associated with a rise in levels of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, dental cavities and obesity (Van Oostdam et al., 2003). In many indigenous communities, these subsistence food systems are the basis of traditions, socio-economic and cultural well-being. Indigenous peoples maintain a strong connection to the environment through traditional resource-harvesting activities in a way that distinguishes them from non-indigenous communities, and this may indeed contribute to how specific peoples retain a fundamental identification to a particular area (Gray, 1995; Nuttall et al., 2005).

While climate-related changes threaten aspects of food security for some subsistence systems, increased temperatures and decreased sea-ice cover represent increased transport opportunities and access to market food items. Shifts in animal population movements also mean potential introduction of new food species to northern regions. These combined effects on Arctic food security, in addition to increased opportunities for agricultural and pastoral activities with decreased severity of winter and lengthened summer growing seasons, make it difficult to predict how diets will change and impact health, even presupposing that we have a sufficient understanding of what local environments can provide and sustain. It is also clear that these impacts will be influenced not only by environmental change but also by economic, technological and political forces.

Through increased river and coastal flooding and erosion, increased drought, and degradation of permafrost, resulting in loss of reservoirs or sewage contamination, climate change is likely to threaten community and public health infrastructure, most seriously in low-lying coastal Arctic communities (e.g., Shishmaref, Alaska, USA; Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada). Community water sources may be subject to salt-water intrusion and bacterial contamination. Quantities of water available for basic hygiene can become limited due to drought and damaged infrastructure. The incidence of disease caused by contact with human waste may increase when flooding and damaged infrastructure such as sewage lagoons, or inadequate hygiene, spreads sewage. However, treatment efficiencies in wastewater lagoons may also improve due to warmer water temperatures, delaying the need to expand natural wastewater treatment systems as local populations grow (Warren et al., 2005).

The combined socio-cultural, economic, political and environmental forces acting on and within Arctic communities today (Chapin et al., 2005a) have significant implications for health and well-being (Curtis et al., 2005). Alterations in the physical environment threatening specific communities (e.g., through erosion and thawing permafrost) and leading to forced relocation of inhabitants, or shifts or declines in resources resulting in altered access to subsistence species (e.g., Inuit hunting of polar bear) can lead to rapid and long-term cultural change and loss of traditions. Such loss can, in turn, create psychological distress and anxiety among individuals (Hamilton et al., 2003; Curtis et al., 2005). However, across most of the Arctic, climate change is just one of many driving forces transforming communities. These forces arise from inside and outside the community, but combined are influencing the acculturation process by influencing ways of living, and loss of traditions that are positively related to social, cultural and psychological health (Berry, 1997).

The social, cultural and economic transitions that Arctic communities have seen over the last 50 years has influenced all aspects of health in the Arctic, and this influence is highly likely to continue in the future. Climate change is probably going to drive changes in communities by challenging individuals’ and communities’ relationships with their local environment, which has been the basis of Arctic peoples’ identity, culture, social and physical well-being (Einarsson et al., 2004; Berner et al., 2005; Chapin et al., 2005a).