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Polar Regions

Overview

Life in the planet’s polar regions can be incredibly difficult. Bitterly cold winds whip across the landscape. Winter temperatures can reach deep into the negatives, and the winter night can last for months. But these seemingly barren landscapes are home to a rich diversity of wildlife—both on land and under the sea surface—that has evolved to survive these harsh conditions.

Millions of people also live in the Arctic, but Antarctica has no permanent inhabitants. Antarctica is protected by a 1959 treaty that established the continent as a place to be used only for peace and science—though several thousand scientists and support staff periodically inhabit the area in the pursuit of research.

But even the relatively untouched expanse of Antarctica has not been immune to the effects of climate change. And the Arctic, in addition to climate change, has suffered from pollution, development by the oil and gas industry, and overfishing.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus)

Polar Bear Mom and Cub Snuggle in the Snow

Polar bears usually give birth to twin cubs that stick around for about two years. Take a look at a mother polar bear and her cub snuggling in the snow.

Polar Bear

Why They Matter

  • Rich in Wildlife

    Polar landscapes are home to a rich diversity of wildlife, both on land and within the seas. Some polar animals have evolved to survive life in the deep cold while others, such as birds and whales, migrate long distances each summer, drawn by the abundant food supply or ideal nesting grounds in the Arctic.

  • Indigenous People Tied to the Landscape

    Millions of people live in the Arctic, including many indigenous peoples whose ancestors first came to the area thousands of years ago and who still depend on the native landscape and wildlife for their livelihoods.

Threats

The polar regions of our planet may appear too remote for humans to have too much of an impact on them, but even activities thousands of miles away can negatively affect these areas.

Climate Change

Climate change is already altering Arctic habitats. The region has warmed by nearly 10 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, and continues to warm two to three times faster than the average for the rest of the world. Summer ice cover is shrinking, permafrost is melting and coastlines have been exposed to erosion. Animals such as polar bears and walruses are losing habitat. Sea ice is also disappearing in Antarctica, where its loss threatens to wipe out the penguin species that live there.

Chinook salmon

Around the world—including in the Arctic Ocean and the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica—humans are taking fish out of the water faster than fish can reproduce and be replaced. In the Barents Sea, a relatively undisturbed area north of Norway and Russia, overfishing has led to a decline of fish species and threatened the future of important fisheries such as cod.

Pollutants from human activities tend to make their way to polar regions, transported via ocean currents, migratory birds and other means. Marine debris, which can entangle wildlife, may stick around for long periods as the region’s extended, dark and cold winters inhibit the breakdown of chemicals. In addition, toxic contaminants become concentrated as they move up the food chain—a process called biomagnification—and are highest in top predators, such as polar bears. At the very top of the food chain, humans are also exposed to high levels of these toxins in traditional Arctic foods.

The Arctic holds some of the world’s largest untapped oil and gas reserves, but getting to those precious resources—whether on land or offshore—can have devastating environmental impacts. Infrastructure for these development projects can destroy habitat, fragment migration routes, and drain freshwater resources. And when something goes wrong and an oil spill occurs, Arctic wildlife can be killed and habitat contaminated for years.

What WWF Is Doing

Planning for the Future

As Arctic seas undergo dramatic transformations caused by climate change, they face multiple threats. As the number of ice-free days in the Arctic Ocean grows, so does access to marine resources such as offshore oil and gas reserves. Shipping is made easier by a longer season of open water for navigation. This new industrial pressure poses the threats of potential accidents such as oil spills and shipwrecks. WWF advocates for better science and spill response technology, “no-go” zones to protect vulnerable wildlife areas, and spill prevention measures as critical steps in planning for the future of the Arctic

Protecting Wildlife

Climate change is altering habitats quickly, forcing animals into increasing conflict with people in the Arctic. In Russia, WWF helped form patrols to monitor and help protect polar bears and walruses. WWF also tracks polar bears by satellite to determine how far and where they travel and how this might be changing. WWF also has joined with other conservation organizations to urge for special protection for Antarctic wildlife. In 1994, the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica was declared a whale sanctuary.

Adapting to Climate Change

Alaska and Chukotka (Russia) have a lot in common, from indigenous cultures and languages to plant species, seabirds, and marine mammals such as the polar bear, bowhead whale, and walrus. These species and the hundreds of indigenous communities who depend on them share another trait: centuries of tradition are being transformed by climate change. WWF brings the U.S. and Russian counterparts together to support scientific research, community engagement in resource management, and conservation efforts for these species. In the Bering Strait, WWF works with partners to identify the most effective measures possible to ensure safe maritime shipping to coexist with community and wildlife needs.

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