|Major river systems in the Arctic
Catchment area of the Arctic Ocean, showing
major rivers with their annual discharges in cubic kilometres
Source: CAFF 2001
The Arctic holds much of the world's freshwater
supply and its landscape is dominated by freshwater systems. The two main
permanent ice fields are the ice pack of the Arctic Ocean (8 million km2)
and the Greenland ice cap (1.7 million km2), which together
hold 10 per cent of the world's freshwater. The Greenland ice cap produces
about 300 km3 of icebergs a year. The Arctic has several of
the world's largest rivers. They pour 4 200 km3 of freshwater
into the Arctic Ocean annually along with about 221 million tonnes of
sediment (Crane and Galasso 1999, AMAP 1997).
Low temperatures, low nutrient, short light availability and a brief
growing season limit the primary productivity of Arctic freshwater systems.
This in turn restricts the animal life that can be supported. Nevertheless,
the river systems are heavily populated by several fish species such as
the Arctic charr, and the North Atlantic and Pink salmon. In recent years,
the overall warming trend plus increased recreational and commercial fisheries
use have put pressure on these populations. Accidental introduction of
alien species and increased fish farming is another source of concern
(Bernes 1996). Eutrophication is a recent problem in several lakes in
Scandinavia where human settlements have raised nutrient levels.
Northbound rivers are major pathways of pollutants from sources far inland,
especially in the Russian Federation. In the spring, these contaminants
are deposited into the freshwater systems and eventually into the marine
environment and can be transported thousands of kilometres from their
sources via the Arctic's marine circulation patterns. Contaminants include
chemicals from agricultural, industrial and petroleum production, radionuclides
from nuclear testing and military activities, and water soluble salts
(Crane and Galasso 1999). The Arctic countries adopted a circumpolar Regional
Programme of Action for Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment against
Land-based Activities (based on the Global Programme of Action for the
Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities) as well
as National Programmes of Action in some countries, including the Russian
Federation. These instruments are too recent to assess long-term effectiveness
|The decline of Barrow's Goldeneye
The decline of Barrow's Goldeneye, Bucefala
islandica, at Lake Myvatyn, Iceland, measured by numbers of males
in the spring
Source: CAFF 2001
Opposition to damming is strong in the Nordic countries.
During 1975-2001, the Cree people fought the government of Quebec over
environmental damage to their lands. In a surprise move in October 2001,
however, the Cree reversed their stand and signed an agreement in principle
to allow the government of Quebec to build another large power development
project on the Eastmain-Rupert river system in exchange for a cash settlement.
In 2000, a hydroelectric power project that would have flooded an important
wetland was rejected (Arctic Bulletin 2001). In 2001, Iceland's National
Planning Agency rejected plans for a hydroelectric power project that
would have dammed two of the three main rivers flowing from Europe's largest
glacier and destroyed a vast wilderness.
Since the 1970s, surface air temperatures appear to have increased on
average 1.5°C per decade over continental Siberia and western portions
of North America, both of which are major sources of freshwater into the
Arctic basin. The opposite trend is occurring in Greenland and Canada's
eastern Arctic where there is a negative trend of -1°C per decade (AMAP
1997). The warming trend has resulted in thawing of the continuous permafrost
in Alaska and northern Russia (Morison and others 2000, IPCC 2001).
Arctic countries have partially responded to threats to their freshwater
systems by establishing protected areas and designating important wetland
areas under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. Nearly
half the protected area in the Arctic is the Greenland ice cap and glaciers
which store freshwater.