The polar regions can no longer be seen as untouched wilderness, although Antarctica is still less affected by human activity than anywhere else in the world. In the Arctic, the climate is already changing noticeably, and the annual mean temperature has been rising about twice as fast as in other regions in recent decades.
Shrinking sea ice cover
Sea ice cover has been shrinking in the Barents Sea and the Arctic generally over the past 30 years. In 2012, a record level of ice melt was recorded in the Arctic. There had never been so little ice cover since satellite measurements started in 1979. The Greenland ice sheet and glaciers in Svalbard are melting, and the temperature of the permafrost is rising. Researchers are also warning of accelerating ocean acidification as a result of CO2 emissions.
The Arctic is also being affected by pollution. Although levels of several hazardous substances have declined, there are still alarmingly high concentrations in a number of species, including polar bears, ivory gulls, glaucous gulls and fulmars.
The impacts of climate change are much less marked in the Antarctic, and pollution levels are considerably lower.
Shrinking ice cover a threat to many species
The loss of sea ice in the Arctic poses a threat to many species. Harp seals and hooded seals will lose their habitat and polar bears their hunting grounds, and populations of fish, plankton and algae that are dependent on the ice edge are expected to decline steeply.
Human activity has impacts in the polar regions
Greenhouse gas emissions and pollution originating in distant parts of the world are having impacts in the polar regions. In addition, there is increasing human activity within these regions, and growing pressure to exploit oil, gas and coal reserves and biological resources.
Tens of thousands of tourists visit Svalbard every year, the population of the islands is growing, and research activity is expanding. An ice-free Barents Sea will open up new areas of interest for fisheries, oil and gas activities and research.
In the Antarctic, the fisheries, research and tourism are all expanding considerably. This may be harmful to the vulnerable environment of the Southern Ocean and more accessible land areas of Antarctica.
Protection, regulation and emission cuts
Cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are needed to safeguard the polar environment. It is also important to protect large continuous areas of habitat and to regulate tourism, mineral exploitation and research activities.
In the Arctic, stricter national and international legislation can help to reverse negative trends. Information on how to avoid damage to the vulnerable environment is also important. In the Antarctic, there is already a strict international regime that regulates potentially harmful activities.