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GEO-3: GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT OUTLOOK  
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Wildlife rearguard

Key to charts
Land area impacted by infrastructure expansion: Arctic (% of total land area)

The Arctic holds the largest remaining undisturbed - but highly sensitive - wilderness in the world.

Source: GLOBIO (see technical annex)

Infrastructure developments, often related to fishing and tourism in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, and to oil, gas and other mineral development in the Arctic, expand significantly in a Markets First world (see chart for the situation in the Arctic). In the Antarctic, this includes spontaneous private colonization by a limited number of economically and technology-rich individuals or entities. In the Arctic, habitats of wide-ranging species, such as the caribou, reindeer, grizzly bear and musk ox are severely fragmented and encroached upon. All Arctic wildlife is substantially affected either directly or indirectly from the disruption of the food chain, from habitat loss and from the insidious impacts of climate change. Excessive hunting further reduces some of the populations to biologically unsustainable levels.

In Policy First, these pressures are kept in check, although effects of decades of warming - on land and sea - are visible over large expanses. Responsible planning decisions have prevailed and wildlife habitat has remained relatively intact. In many cases this is due to the improved effectiveness of habitat management, particularly in protected areas which are now integrated into circumpolar and north-south networks. The numbers and size of protected areas have increased significantly, but many sites still have inadequate regulations on mineral, oil and gas exploration and extraction and hydropower generation. Hunting is sustainable in most parts of the Arctic and quotas are based on much improved scientific evidence.

Security First sees permanent residence in Antarctica becoming possible for personnel employed by industries active in the area and as a status symbol for the wealthy. Numbers of endemic wildlife in the Arctic plummet, the food chain is disrupted and genetic diversity is weakened due to habitat degradation and fragmentation. Opportunistic alien species able to survive in the warming climate have filled available niches. However, even they are having a hard time due to contamination by wastes and habitat destruction.

In Sustainability First, biodiversity hot spots and habitats are protected and large areas are set aside as national parks or nature reserves to help wildlife cope with climate change. Small, regulated subsistence hunts are still allowed in accordance with agreements negotiated with indigenous peoples. The public does not tolerate poaching. Residence in the Antarctic is denied for anything other than specifically agreed purposes, generally scientific research.

In the Arctic, the condition of the boreal forests differs markedly between scenarios. Large areas of forest in the region have come under stress from rapid climate change, leading to long-term shifts in temperature and precipitation, as well as to increasing incidence of fires. Continued and increasing levels of logging in Markets First and Security First further exacerbate these pressures. Most notably, in Security First muddy plains and clear-cut forested areas have replaced many of the once vast pristine landscapes.

Imagine ... a crash in circumpolar Antarctic krill stocks

Clear signs emerge that circumpolar Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) stocks are crashing. The immediate cause is believed to be commercial over-harvesting, but the picture is complicated by simultaneous sea-ice changes and rises in ultraviolet radiation levels, both of which are believed to affect krill population dynamics. There is evidence of serious adverse impacts on breeding success of Antarctic birds, seals and cetaceans within a few seasons, leading to serious concerns over the viability of populations of higher predators. Indications of severe damage to stocks of other marine species - initially evident through declining stocks of fin-fish and squid - raise concern about the stability of the entire Antarctic marine ecosystem, and knock-on effects on other ecosystems in and around the subregion. Dramatic falls in catches of krill and commercial fisheries stocks that prey on krill, result in widespread reduction in fishing activity and collapse of the fishing industry in some areas. The treaties, institutions and other international arrangements set up to conserve and manage the fishery are seen as having failed. Public concern runs high at the prospect of threats to charismatic wildlife species such as penguins, seals and whales.

In the case of ...

Markets First
  • Some regulatory steps are taken, but market mechanisms are the prime response measures used - reducing krill demand by raising prices, and harvesting by raising costs.
  • Harvesting switches to other species, including those that are not dependent upon krill themselves and may be competitors. Where these responses fail, the fishing industry abandons the area.
  • It is widely presumed that krill stocks will in time recover, and that the adverse knock-on effects will turn out to be reversible.
Policy First
  • Moratoria on krill harvesting are agreed to allow stock recovery.
  • These steps are accompanied by reductions in fisheries activities across all target species.
  • Major research effort is directed to understanding what has happened and underpinning policy responses.
  • The regulatory regime for the marine environment is revised.
Security First
  • Measures are taken to ban some operators from the region as a way to curb pressures on krill stocks.
  • Market mechanisms are employed when they underpin the interests of key stakeholders in the region.
  • In a bid for short-term 'use-it-or-lose-it' exploitation, harvesting switches to other species, including those expected to decline steeply as a result of krill stock collapse.
  • Active management of the marine environment begins by seeding new krill stocks (including genetically modified types), enhancing nutrient levels and depressing predators or competitors.
Sustainability First
  • There is an immediate closure of all krill fisheries pending recovery of stocks.
  • Substantial reductions in other fisheries are introduced as a precautionary measure - although directed harvesting of particular predator populations is considered in some areas.
  • A renewed effort is made to understand the functioning of the Antarctic marine environment.
  • Negotiation begins for a new legal regime to manage the marine environment and regulate more limited harvesting when stocks have recovered.

The lessons
Existing knowledge of many natural systems is limited, including the thresholds for resource exploitation, beyond which systems collapse. Such thresholds may be reached in a comparatively sudden way. It makes sense, therefore, to continue efforts to improve understanding, but also to take a precautionary approach where baseline data are lacking, where uncertainty is high and where irreversible impacts are possible. This course of action may avoid the need to take more drastic action in the event of a system crash.