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Changing to face change: the need for new management approaches

By the end of this century, the Arctic - one of the world’s last and largest intact natural spaces - will be a very different place. Temperatures are warming more than twice as fast as they are for the planet as a whole. Sea ice is melting. Arctic wildlife and people are beginning to live altered lives.

These days, the question is not whether the Arctic will change; the question is whether this change will push plant, animal, and human systems beyond the brink - a point where gradual ecological shifts give way to sudden, unpredictable transformation, and our long-familiar polar environments and communities become abruptly unrecognisable.

Many scientists now recognise that current approaches to conservation and natural resource management may not be enough to help important arctic regions avoid this threshold.

Protecting weakened species populations or imperiled habitats remains important, but today’s scale and pace of change requires safeguarding ecological strength, durability, and responsiveness to change: we need to identify ecosystems that are viable and providing services to people (eg. harvests of mammals, fish, or other food) so we can support the characteristics and features that invigorate these systems and help them adapt in the future.

The complexity of arctic living systems makes it difficult to anticipate exactly how rapid change will affect biodiversity or any single resource. By emphasising a more comprehensive ecosystem approach to conservation, RACER maximises the management options available for protecting the North and its unique ecological identity into the future.

Given the rate at which we are racing to develop resources in the Arctic, time is also of the essence: we need scientific tools now that can help us to manage biodiversity and other natural resources and to support the ecosystem services important to the livelihoods and well-being of arctic people - even as we continue to deepen our comprehension of the complexity of arctic life.

The beginning of RACER

The rationale for RACER began with a review of the current state of arctic conservation during a WWF workshop in Oslo, Norway in May 2009. Conference participants agreed that the scale and the speed of climate-related ecological change in the Arctic would soon outpace and frustrate efforts to conserve species and habitats where they are found today.

The immensity of this challenge demanded a significantly new way of thinking about planning and management in the Arctic.
The Oslo workshop concluded that a first step must be a rapid assessment of where arctic ecosystems were functioning particularly well now and how likely they would continue to function in the climate-altered future.

The assessment would take a mechanistic view and look for the features (on the landscape or at sea) whose characteristics drive exceptional productivity and diversity and lend resilience to regional ecosystems. Both the current location of features and the ecological drivers at work in these places would become important targets for conservation and management efforts in the face of change.
In October 2010, WWF’s arctic expert advisors met in Ottawa, Canada. Equipped with resilience science and a better understanding of the limits of arctic data, the group developed the RACER analytical framework - a model that could be both quick and effective (based on the best available information) at identifying the most important sources of ecosystem strength within arctic ecoregions.

A series of ecoregional workshops followed to further develop the on-the-ground methods and to examine the preliminary conclusions of the sample pilot studies - including those in the Beaufort Sea, the Laptev Sea, the Central Canadian Tundra, and the Eastern Chukotka region of Russia.

The overall RACER framework also continued to develop to bridge the gaps between its ecosystem-theoretical foundations and the practicable approaches to ecological assessments identified by the case studies.

Ross's gull (Rhodostethia rosea), endemic to the Arctic. © WWF / Hartmut Jungius
Ross's gull (Rhodostethia rosea), endemic to the Arctic



CAVM Team (2003). Circumpolar Arctic Vegetation Map. Scale 1:7,500,000. Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) Map No. 1. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Anchorage, Alaska.

Spalding MD, Fox HE, Allen GR, Davidson N, Ferdaña ZA, Finlayson M, Halpern BJ, Jorge MA, Lombana A, Lourie SA, Martin KD, Mcmanus E, Molnar J, Recchia CA, and Robertson J (2007) Marine Ecoregions of the World: A Bioregionalization of Coastal and Shelf Areas. Bioscience 57: 573-583.

Walker DA, Raynolds MK, Daniels FJA, Einarsson E, Elvebakk A, Gould WA, Katenin AE, Kholod SS, Markon CJ, Melnikov ES, Moskalenko NJ, Talbot SS, Yurtsev BA, and the CAVM Team (2005). The Circumpolar Arctic Vegetation Map. Journal of Vegetation Science, 16: 267- 282.


Algae on rocky shore St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska

© WWF / Kevin Schafer


"Sources of resilience are located where key land or marine features (such as ocean polynyas, mountains, and river deltas) help generate exceptional productivity and diversity and confer the benefits of this ecological vitality to the wider ecosystems to which they belong and to the people who rely on them."

RACER Handbook, p.20

RACER ecoregion map 
RACER ecoregion map

Ecological regions of the Arctic

The Arctic is home to 50 representative ecoregions that reflect the wide range of unique ecosystems and varieties of life found throughout the Far North. These regions are distinguished and located on a map using two broad biogeographic ecological classification methods: the Circumpolar Arctic Vegetation Map (CAVM Team 2003, Walker et al. 2005) for regions on land and, at sea, the Marine Ecoregions of the World project (Spalding et al. 2007).

CAVM classifies the variation in plant species groups and communities found in clearly recognizable regions across the Arctic. Although many plants occur throughout the circumpolar North, variation in other species groups reflects the Arctic’s diverse glacial histories, topography, and other factors that may have isolated plant populations and contributed to regional differences. Importantly, the CAVM classes also fall into categorical distinctions according to regional differences in the soil type, soil moisture, and temperature.

At sea, ecoregions are classified based on distinctions described by the recent Marine Ecoregions of the World (MEOW) project. The team of international researchers involved in MEOW used recognizable species groups of both plants and animals to make regional distinctions. Marine ecoregions are defined as “areas of relatively homogeneous species composition that clearly differ in this regard from adjacent systems.” These identifiable species groupings are likely the consequence of characteristics in the seascape that encourage biological isolation and difference, such as seafloor mountains and canyons, temperature, ice, currents, upwelling, or coastal complexity (Spalding et al. 2007).


All material from case studies on this site is work in progress and should not be considered final. For questions, please contact Martin Sommerkorn: email msommerkorn (at) wwf (dot) no.


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