Expert: The Arctic as we know will disappear by the late 21st century

During the 11th International Forum Arctic: the Present and the Future, the editorial office discussed the onset of a new Ice Age, environmental protection and the need to fight poaching with Professor Arkady Tishkov, DSc (Geography), Deputy Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geography, Associate Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Would you say that you agree with the statement that has been made that we are now entering another phase of the warming-cooling process? And when, in your opinion, do you think that Arctic ice formations will stop melting so rapidly?

Between 2007 and 2013, the area of old sea-ice formations hit an all-time low of around four square kilometers, and their area has just about remained the same over the past few years or so. The data was collected by means of using long-distance monitors and satellite photos during the fall when the smallest ice formations are recorded.

But scientists are voicing different opinions. For example, astrophysicists believe that in approximately two or three years from now solar activity will start subsiding, and that the climate will cool off. Some climatologists support this theory. Our colleague from the Academy of Sciences addressed those at the forum today and said that the Arctic region's climatic system was entering another 30-year cycle when temperatures will drop gradually and become more normal. In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, the Russian Arctic had posted a similar warming process with +2-3 degree temperature fluctuations; that process resembled the current developments.

The international academic community and members of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change continue to scare us and to predict subsequent warming, including that in the Arctic. Unlike other regions, North Pole temperatures are to rise by three, four or even five degrees. This means that the Arctic as we know it will disappear in the short-term perspective or by the late 21st century. The first publications with the results of model calculations appeared in the early 2000s.

What does a five-degree warming process mean? This amounts to two or three new climate zones, rather than just one. The history of the development of Arctic landscapes shows that this had already happened before when forests flourished near the Arctic Ocean's coast. Take the so-called Holocene Climate Optimum [editor's note: the Atlantic period, the warmest and most humid Nordic European Holocene period, according to the Blytt-Sernander classifications]. A substantial warming process took place about 2,000 years ago during the Roman Climatic Optimum. This was followed by the Medieval Climate Optimum about 1,000 years ago when the Vikings settled down in Greenland and reached North America. And, finally, the last large-scale warming process ended in the Russian Arctic about 60 years ago. I found pieces of trees far away in the Taimyr Peninsula tundra during the 1970-1973 expedition. We also studied a peat bog that had formed 10,000 to 15,000 years ago in the Pechora River's delta and traced the entire timeline describing numerous warming and cooling periods.

Of course, the Arctic warmed up many times, and forests grew on the Arctic Ocean's coast. This forecast also exists today. By the way, I described various forecasts regarding tundra-zone and polar-desert boundaries and how these boundaries would gradually disappear, if the current forecast of anthropogenic-warming proponents comes true, in my report at the forum's biodiversity workshop. Consequently, the Arctic, as we know it, may disappear as a landscape and ecosystem phenomenon.

To what extent can melting ice formations impact the Arctic animal kingdom, including that of polar bears?

I have a double opinion when it comes to this matter. I don't see any serious problems with polar bears, except human encroachment and the development of circumpolar territories that are important for this animal species, today. I am talking about Wrangel Island, Spitsbergen and Franz Josef Land Archipelago where concerns continues to increase. What is important for polar bears? They need the areas where their main dens and sources of food are located to be left in peace. This can be explained by the influence of various things, including transport and tourism, for example, in Spitsbergen. Of course, this influences the state of the population of polar bears.

Sources of food are the second matter. Water bodies become disrupted; the same is true of food sources, mostly pinnipeds, leaving for other places. It is hardly surprising that members of an expedition along the Northern Sea Route sighted over 100 polar bears near a beached whale carcass off Wrangel Island. They smelled the whale from far away, gathered and fed on the carcass for days on end. Members of the marine expedition from the Oceanology Institute studying the eastern coast of the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago regularly encounter absolutely emaciated polar bears rummaging through bird colonies in the hope of finding a guillemot egg or a dead chick there. Of course, this is a major problem, and they have lost their main source of food, namely, pinnipeds that have moved elsewhere because of the changed ice situation.

There are many problems. We cannot say anything about the polar bears today until a circumpolar animal count has been completed. Polar bears couldn't care less about state borders, and they now find it important to adapt to new Arctic conditions. And the Russian state is unable to finance this program. Not so very long ago I had an argument with a representative of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and noted that there was no normal system for monitoring regional biodiversity at state level. The absence of state-level monitoring means that we don't know exactly how many polar bears there are there. What can we do if we don't know the size of their population? We are discussing these matters, including at our workshop. It is necessary to conduct state censuses of key Arctic animal and fish species, including polar bears, Atlantic walruses and some species of sig fish that are negatively affected by what's going on in the Arctic.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is now urging that measures be taken to protect the population of the wild reindeer. What can we do in this connection?

Today, everyone is aware of poaching which is the main factor. Russia boasts an extremely unique wild reindeer population in the Taimyr Peninsula. In the past, this population reached almost one million heads. But we have never seen such all-out poaching in the past. This is not just about using equipment, such as snowmobiles, for easily catching up with reindeer and shooting them without respite. Today, many animals are killed due to the procurement of antlers of young reindeer, used to obtain Pantocrin reindeer extract and medical preparations. These substances are exported and sold lucratively on the domestic market.

The state is supposed to be putting an end to this. In this case, the Ministry has no right to claim that it is unable to deal with the situation. It is necessary to fight poaching and to introduce tougher penal sanctions. Of course, this crime should carry prison sentences instead of minor fines. To be honest, most people living in the Arctic, with the exception of the indigenous ethnic groups, couldn't care less about local nature. Therefore we have to deal with this lackadaisical attitude. It is possible to improve the situation at gas fields where seasonal workers can be evicted for violating strict regulations and nature conservation legislation. But this does not happen in agglomerations around Norilsk, for example, and locals especially the unemployed, take advantage of the situation and eke out an existence by poaching fish and reindeer. This problem worries me.

What measures could be taken to help get rid of or reduce Arctic poaching?

As a member of the Economic Development Ministry's commission for relocating communities, I'm the one to decide whether or not it is the right thing to do to shut down places which have no future. Of course, the Arctic should not have ‘superfluous" people. No dubious jobless people lacking jobs and professions should make their homes here. The region is notorious for its absolutely hostile and uncomfortable environment, and people who have finished working here should move somewhere else. Efforts to get rid of the surplus population will also make it possible to fight poaching.

The level of incomes is another thing. When a person gets a pension or earns 15,000-20,000 rubles in some hopeless sector when at the same time oil and gas workers earn several hundred thousand rubles per month, this may create problems. Of course, meager incomes can be boosted by such activities as illegal fishing, procurement of sturgeon and sig caviar, as well as reindeer poaching.

All this encourages entire centers of this gray market. This amounts to small-scale commercial procurement, rather than poaching. No one poaches just to feed their family. This amounts to commercial procurement. We need to put an end to this in the Arctic, especially in the northern districts of the Krasnoyarsk Territory. Territorial administrators are working down in the south, and the poaching center is located way up north, some 5,000 to 6,000 kilometers away. It is very hard to monitor this entire situation. As I see it, we have to reinstate the Evenk and Taimyr autonomous areas as independent regions, rather than municipal entities. This would ensure more cost-effective territorial administration and help fight poaching more effectively. The second thing is, we need to get rid of the surplus of unemployed people and do something when it comes to this.