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Challenges in the Barents Region

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This article originally appeared in The Circle 03.17. Find back issues here.

The Barents Region is the most developed, populated and fastest growing part of the Arctic. While climate change is a strong global force, other forces might be more important locally. TOM ARMSTRONG says these must be identified and assessed so we can fully understand the overall impact of cumulative change to take successful adaptation actions and promote greater resilience.

THE BARENTS AREA was defined in 1993 as an area of political cooperation between Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. It was extended northwards to include Svalbard and Franz Josef Land in the High Arctic, eastwards to incorporate Yamalo-Nenets, and includes the Barents Sea to constitute the overall Adaption Actions for A Changing Arctic (AACA) Barents study area (Figures 1 and 2).

The area is inhabited by more than 5 million people, including many indigenous peoples, with an average population density of 2.9 inhabitants per square kilometer. Although this is low compared to other areas of the globe, it is by far the most populated area above the Arctic Circle. The Barents Area includes sizeable cities such as Murmansk and Archangelsk in Russia, Oulu in Finland and Umeå in Sweden. This region is home to many cultures.

In the Nordic part of the Barents Area, the services sector is by far the largest employer. Forestry is important in northern Sweden, Finland and northwest Russia, while fishing, oil and gas exploration and extraction/transport are important in northern Norway and northwestern Russia. Conversely, the area is an important source of hydroelectricity for local use and for export. Mining is economically important in parts of each country, as is the issue of mine contamination of water resources and the related food web which are critical to the sustainment of healthy, naturally functioning terrestrial and marine ecosystems.


Climatically, the area is heavily influenced by proximity to the sea and its high latitude, although the Gulf Stream makes it warmer than other circumpolar areas. Climate impacts on flora and fauna are already noticeable, especially those vulnerable to changes in ocean water temperatures, acidity and other climate impacts. The changing climate is also influencing hibernation periods, phenological changes and altering complex food webs.

Ecologically, the area is largely boreal forest (54%); alpine and Arctic tundra (20%); mountain glaciers (4%); freshwater lakes and rivers (10%), and open wetlands (12%). The boreal forest is relatively low in animal species but many species of prey can be found there, including reindeer, moose, red deer, roe deer, mountain hare, and rodent species such as beaver, squirrel and voles. Resident predators include the Eurasian lynx, Stoat, European otter, Wolverine, Gray Wolf, Red Fox and Brown Bear. The Barents Sea hosts more than 200 species of fish, with Capelin Polar Cod and juvenile herring being two of the most commercially exploited. The Barents also supports some of the largest concentrations of seabirds in the world.


Changes related to increased industrial activity and areal growth include:

  1. continued expansion of industryrelated land-use and land-cover change and associated fragmentation of key terrestrial species’ habitat;
  2.  increased contamination of critical lands and associated surface water and ground water resources;
  3. continued degradation of marine environments that serve as breeding grounds for key fish and marine mammal species;
  4. declines in overall biodiversity within areas currently rich in these species;
  5. ocean acidification and warming which alters complex food webs and the concentrations of fish species critical to indigenous people’s needs as well as commercially viable food sources.


These changes, along with many others, will need to be considered during the early onset of any new Barents areal assessments; including future iterations of the AACA process, currently under discussion. Successful adaptation and increased resilience over the next few decades will only occur if scientists, resource managers and politicians come to agreement on the role that the different change agents, such as climate change, population increase and related land-use change and land-cover change are going to have on the Arctic’s remaining species, ecosystems, biodiversity and unspoiled natural resources.

Substantial investment into well-integrated science, grounded with the long-standing information of traditional knowledge is critically needed. Otherwise, successful adaptation actions related to sustainability and welfare of natural ecological systems will not occur and will follow the typical course of most policy and other decisions that rely largely on political bias rather than on sound, objective scientific knowledge and subsequent action

Dr. THOMAS R. ARMSTRONG is a member of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) Executive Secretariat, a Working Group of the Arctic Council.

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