Download Disturbance, Feedback and Conservations chapter chapter 19


 Lead Author: Henry Huntington 

Contributing Authors: Tom Arnbom, Finn Danielsen, Martin Enghoff, Eugénie Euskirchen, Bruce Forbes, Tiina Kurvits, Nette Levermann, Peter Løvstrøm, Kaisu Mustonen,Tero Mustonen, Martin Schiøtz, Martin Sommerkorn, Michael Svoboda, Elmer Topp-Jørgensen and Geoff York.

SUMMARYPhoto: Wild Arctic PicturesPhoto: Wild Arctic Pictures

Humans disturb the environment in various ways, notably from industrial development and other activities in formerly pristine areas. Components of the earth system affect one another in a web of feedbacks, including be tween ecosystems and climate. Conservation is the human attempt to avoid or minimize the impacts of human activity on species and habitats. This chapter examines all three topics.

Disturbance here refers to the disruption of normal ecological functions or distributions at the landscape level. While many types of human activity can affect local environments, industrial development is most likely to affect larger areas, followed by spatially extensive practices such as reindeer herding that can lead to heavy grazing and trampling. Around the Arctic, human activity is increasing, with more roads and other infrastructure, leading to a greater overall impact, especially in areas with oil and gas or other valuable commodities.

Feedbacks occur in many forms at many scales. Here, we look at the primarily positive feedbacks from Arctic warming to global climate, which are likely to lead to still greater warming. For example, the loss of ice and snow leaves a darker surface, so that more sunlight is absorbed, leading to greater warming and so on. Changes in the Arctic’s role in the carbon cycle, through release of carbon dioxide and methane and possible increased uptake of carbon dioxide through increased vegetation growth, will affect global climate. Forcing through positive feedbacks is likely to outweigh the impacts of negative feedbacks within the Arctic.

We were told not to hunt animals for the sense of killing. Because you are not able to use that animal for eternity. I believe we were also taught that there is a certain purpose here in this particular time for us to utilize these marine mammals. That was what I heard the elderly people say from the older generation, like Pelaasi and others, used to say. They were saying: the ‘plan’ has been already made. The ‘master plan’ is that our purpose is to hunt marine mammals, but that we should not take that for granted. This is why conservation is so important in our culture. George Noongwook in Oozeva et al. 2004.

Three measures of conservation are addressed next. Habitat protection is usually measured in terms of protected areas, which are generally strong on land in the Arctic but nearly absent in the marine environment. Species protection includes those species listed in various categories at risk of extinction, and unfortunately these lists appear to be growing in the Arctic as elsewhere in the world. Effective conservation also requires the participation of the people who are likely to either create threats or be affected by management measures. A growing number of programs seek to include Arctic residents in gathering, analyzing and making use of observational data, which often cannot be obtained in other ways.


Humans interact with Arctic ecosystems in many ways.This chapter examines three types of interactions: disturbance, feedbacks and conservation. Disturbance is the effect that human activity has on the natural environment. Taken broadly, nearly everything humans do cre ates some form of disturbance, since the natural world is altered by our presence and our activities. Some of this interaction is the normal result of people living as part of the ecosystem, and thus does not constitute a threat. For the purposes of this assessment, disturbance refers more narrowly to the disruption of normal ecological functions or distributions at the landscape level, posing a threat to biodiversity. While many types of human activity can affect local environments, industrial development is most likely to affect larger areas, followed by spatially extensive practices such as reindeer herding that can lead to heavy grazing and trampling of vegetation.

Feedbacks are in one sense a part of the natural world, constraining the natural cycles of weather, climate and biology. Feedbacks large and small are thus present throughout the world. While negative feedbacks tend to push a system back to its original state, positive feedbacks lead to ever greater or faster change. Melting snow, ice and permafrost in the Arctic are one such positive feedback, and are described herein. This feedback is already important at the global scale, and likely to become even more significant in the near future as sea ice retreats in summer, snow cover becomes less extensive in space and time, and permafrost degrades and thaws, all of which will lead to greater warming and thus further change.

On a more optimistic note, conservation efforts are humankind’s attempt to reduce its negative impacts on the environment. Habitat protection recognizes that biodiversity requires intact ecosystems for natural processes to continue. Species protection focuses directly on populations that are at risk, aiming at its simplest to avoid extinction from human causes. Environmental monitoring is essential to determine what is at risk and whether conservation efforts are succeeding. In the Arctic, sparse populations and remote areas create a special need for the involvement of local residents in community-based initiatives. These three conservation measures are addressed here.

This chapter is neither exhaustive nor definitive on the topics of disturbance, feedbacks and conservation. It aims instead at describing key aspects of human-ecosystem interactions, focusing on matters of special significance in the Arctic, with the expectation that these areas of focus will be relevant markers for future consideration of trends in Arctic ecosystems and their relationship to humans and to the world as a whole.


The sections of this chapter have addressed a wide range of topics, quantitatively where possible and qualitatively otherwise. Evaluating the status and likely trends of disturbances, feedbacks, and conservation efforts is not easy. For example, an increase in the number of species listed as threatened or endangered may indicate greater commitment to species protection, or it may indicate a greater number of species at risk. More extensive habitat protection will benefit biodiversity, but what occurs outside of protected areas may ultimately be more important, since protected areas are unlikely to cover a majority of the Arctic.

Community involvement offers a number of clear benefits, but should not replace national and other monitoring and conservation efforts, since community practices may not always be consistent with the protection of biodiversity. Disturbance is equally clearly a negative outcome of human-ecosystem interactions, though the causes vary from industrial exploitation of petroleum and minerals, heavy grazing and trampling, and the impacts of climate change. Determining how to address disturbance is thus not always straightforward, especially where large financial interests are at stake. The potential for climate feedbacks to magnify warming trends is worrisome, pointing to the need for global action to address threats with global causes. Action within the Arctic will not always be sufficient to conserve Arctic biodiversity.

To monitor trends in these indicators of human actions that affect biodiversity, a set of quantitative indicators should be developed. Other types of disturbance, feed-backs and conservation measures should also be considered. Noise and chemical pollution, including ocean acidification, may disturb the metabolism or behavior of many animals. The Arctic hydrological cycle, incluing the potential for sea level rise from melting of ice caps, has feedbacks to the global climate system, and the well-being of migratory species depends on the interrelationship of Arctic conditions with conditions elsewhere in the annual journeys of those species. Conservation outside of protected areas, the regulation of fishing and hunting, human population growth and the rate of consumption of non-renewable resources are all relevant to the success of biodiversity conservation generally.

Tracking all potential indicators is not possible, but a robust set of measures against which progress or decline can be monitored would greatly help in providing the public and policy makers with a means of assessing whether Arctic communities, Arctic countries and the world as a whole are contributing to the conservation of Arctic biodiversity or the opposite. Without timely and unambiguous measures of performance, uncertainty will provide an excuse for inaction or for accepting greater levels of risk than are consistent with a commitment to protecting the future of Arctic ecosystems and those who use them.

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