WWF maps past and future climate threats in Russian Arctic

Posted on 20 December 2013    
Barnacle geese and nestlings, Arctic Russia.
© Oleg Sutkaitis / WWF-Russia

WWF has conducted the world’s first large-scale, location-based assessment of climate-related risks. The study of Vaigach Island, situated in Arctic Russia’s Barents Sea between the Pechora and Kara Seas, looked at the past and future effects of climate change on the island’s land, flora and fauna.

Although there has been some melting of permafrost in recent decades, the study found that an increase in severe weather will be the greatest climate-related threat to the island. The frequency of events like hurricanes and frost-thaw cycles have doubled in the past three decades, and are expected to double again in the next thirty years.

A hurricane in the summer, sea birds’ nesting period, could destroy nearly all nests, eggs and nestlings. A major wind storm could flood the Island’s riverbanks with sea water, damaging native flora. Freezing rain and freeze-thaw cycles create a solid ice crust on snow, keeping reindeer from foraging and trapping lemmings in their dens. Long periods of warm, dry weather, as observed in summer 2013, can force waterfowl to migrate north as brooks dry. Such unexpected migrations can be deadly for nestlings.

Today, however, human activity is the greatest threat to the ecosystems of Vaigach Island. Poaching is decreasing the island’s polar bear populations, while unregulated reindeer herding leads to erosion and melting permafrost.

As sea ice extent decreases in Russian’s Arctic, the potential of oil spills also increases. A WWF oil spill model from 2012 indicates that one of the biggest Atlantic walrus rookeries in the Barents Sea, on western Vaigach Island, will be polluted in the event of a spill from the Prirazlomnaya oil rig.

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Barnacle geese and nestlings, Arctic Russia.
© Oleg Sutkaitis / WWF-Russia Enlarge

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