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Introduction to Climate Change in the Arctic in the Context of Multiple Stressors and Resilience

This is Section 17.1 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. Lead Authors: James J. McCarthy, Marybeth Long Martello; Contributing Authors: Robert Corell, Noelle Eckley Selin, Shari Fox, Grete Hovelsrud-Broda, Svein Disch Mathiesen, Colin Polsky, Henrik Selin, Nicholas J.C.Tyler; Corresponding Authors: Kirsti Strøm Bull, Inger Maria Gaup Eira, Nils Isak Eira, Siri Eriksen, Inger Hanssen-Bauer, Johan Klemet Kalstad, Christian Nellemann, Nils Oskal, Erik S. Reinert, Douglas Siegel-Causey, Paal Vegar Storeheier, Johan Mathis Turi


The impact assessments in the preceding chapters demonstrate significant effects that climate change and increases in ultraviolet (UV) radiation are now having and are expected to have on arctic peoples and ecosystems. These chapters also illustrate that (1) climate change and increases in UV radiation occur amidst a number of other interacting social and environmental changes, (2) the consequences of social and environmental changes depend on the interconnectedness of human and environmental systems and the ability of these coupled systems to cope with and otherwise respond to these changes, and (3) these changes and their consequences occur within and across scales from local to regional and even global dimensions[1]. Assessments of potential impacts of social and environmental change in the Arctic will benefit from formalized frameworks for conceptualizing and analyzing these three characteristics and their implications for the dynamics of arctic social and biophysical systems. The fund of knowledge and learning that underpins these frameworks is based in risk–hazard and vulnerability studies, but only in recent years have these frameworks been applied in studies of arctic human and environment systems.Thus, unlike earlier chapters, this chapter does not have the benefit of a large body of published literature from which conclusions can be drawn regarding the resilience of arctic peoples and ecosystems in relation to future climate change and its interactions with other social and environmental changes.

This chapter develops the case for using a vulnerability framework to explore these interactions and ultimately to generate understanding as to where resilience, made possible through coping and adaptive strategies, could be effective in diminishing future climate change impacts in arctic coupled human–environment systems. “Coupled human–environment system” refers to the ensemble of inextricable relationships linking people and the environment within which they live. Use of the word “system” should not complicate this term, but rather it should communicate that various elements, from politics and history to the behavior of individuals and the ecology of plants and animals, form a complex whole. A vulnerability analysis that builds upon the assessment of climate impacts will consider a climate event in the context of other stresses and perturbations that together produce impacts of a compound character[2]. Elements of a vulnerability approach are evident throughout preceding chapters of this assessment. The concept of vulnerability itself is noted in Chapters 1, 3, and 12, and adaptation and resilience are important themes in the overall assessment, particularly in Chapters 1, 3, 7, 11, 12, and 13.

This chapter uses the definitions of vulnerability and its elements that were adopted in the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with vulnerability defined as the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of stresses.Vulnerability is a function of the character, magnitude, and rate of change in stresses to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity. Exposure is the degree to which a system is in contact with particular stresses. Sensitivity is the degree to which a system is adversely or beneficially affected by stimuli. And adaptive capacity (or resilience) refers to a system’s ability to adjust, to moderate possible harm, to realize opportunities, or to cope with consequences[3].

The presentation of vulnerability analysis in this chapter rests on three primary assumptions: (1) arctic human– environment systems are experiencing multiple and interacting stresses in addition to changes in climate and UV radiation; (2) consequences of social and environmental change depend upon how human–environment systems respond to such changes; and (3) the dynamics of changes, adaptations, and consequences span varied scales. Climate change and UV radiation increases trigger changes in ecosystems upon which arctic residents depend. For example, global warming is expected to increase net primary productivity in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems[4], but increased UV radiation penetration is likely to adversely affect productivity in aquatic ecosystems[5]. Although the Arctic is still a relatively pristine environment compared with many other areas, this region is experiencing significant problems associated with contaminants such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals[6]. Climate change and exposure to pollutants interact, since changes in ice cover and runoff can cause lakes to become greater sinks for river-borne contaminants, and increased catchment rates and melting ice can lead to wider dispersion of pollutants. Moreover, sea-ice reductions can speed the entry of POPs trapped in Arctic Ocean ice into the food chain, posing risks to humans[7]. Linked human health effects of UV radiation, arctic diets, and pollutants have received little attention, but are plausible[8]. Clearly, an assessment of arctic vulnerabilities and the adaptive capacities that can modify vulnerabilities requires a holistic understanding of multiple drivers of change and their interactions.

Examples of resilience are also illustrated in the preceding chapters of this assessment. Consequences arising from climate change and increased UV radiation depend in large part both on the interconnectedness of human– environment systems and the capacities of these systems to respond to changes[9]. As noted by the authors of the Mackenzie Basin Impact Study:

Traditional lifestyles could be at risk from climate change, but this new challenge will not occur in a vacuum. Population growth and economic and institutional changes will influence the North’s sensitivities and vulnerabilities to climate variability and climate change.They will also influence how regions and countries respond to the prospects of a global scale phenomenon that could affect their climate no matter what they do on their own.[10]

Studies of some regional arctic seas have also considered changes in factors that will interact with climate change. One such example is the Barents Sea Impact Study, which examines the possible mobilization of contaminants on theKola Peninsula.The success of the Barents Sea Impact Study rests on a number of factors including place-based research that addresses socio-economic factors, the inclusion of indigenous knowledge, and attention to cross-scale interactions[11].

How arctic peoples experience, respond to, and cope with environmental phenomena will be shaped to some degree by the social changes they have experienced in the past[12]. Increasingly these changes concern relationships between local and central governments (Chapter 3), ties to a global economy and external markets and ways of life (Chapters 11 and 12), campaigns relating to animal rights and environmental issues (Chapter 12), resource management systems grounded in transnational as well as domestic policy fora (Chapters 11, 12, 13), habitat loss due to urbanization, industrial development, and agriculture (Chapter 11), and extraction of nonrenewable resources (Chapters 11, 12, 16). Additional contemporary concerns of high priority for arctic peoples include poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse, inadequate housing, and substandard infrastructure (Chapters 3, 15, and 16).

Analysis of these and other changes and their implications for arctic human–environment systems must take account of dynamics at different scales. Some changes, such as those associated with climate change, for example, originate outside the Arctic, and arctic peoples contribute little to their sources. At the same time, the lives of many arctic peoples are closely interconnected with their environments through fishing, hunting, herding, and gathering (see Chapters 3 and 12).These relationships are also evolving, through, for example, technological changes, which can influence the future sustainability of arctic livelihoods. These close ties to transnational processes and intimate relationships between many arctic people and their environments underscore the importance of examining the vulnerability of particular arctic human–environment systems within the context of dynamics operating within and across local, regional, and global levels.

Social and environmental changes often yield benefits, as well as adverse effects for human–environment systems (Chapter 12). It is, therefore, appropriate to ask: in addition to the obvious desire to minimize future adverse effects of climate and other changes, in what ways might new opportunities be realized? Climate change could lead to increased vegetation growth/cover (Chapter 7), increased production of reindeer meat, new trade routes (Chapter 12), and new or intensified forms of commercial activity. Innovations in hunting equipment and practices might enable some hunters to hunt even more effectively and sustainably under snow and ice cover alterations brought about by climate change. Hunters may adapt to climate change by changing the type of species that they hunt and by altering the location, timing, and intensity of hunting.They may also take actions to minimize risk and uncertainty under unpredictable climate and ice conditions (e.g., by taking greater safety precautions or by electing not to hunt or fish) (Chapter 12).

The integrated vulnerability analysis described in this chapter begins with a general framework from Turner et al.[13].This framework provides a means of conceptualizing the vulnerability of coupled human– environment systems, under alterations in social and biophysical conditions arising from and interacting across global, regional, and local levels[14].Two examples are given where the extension of a climate impact analysis to a vulnerability analysis would be a logical next step. An example of a fully participatory exercise with a Sámi reindeer herding community in the Finnmark area of northern Norway is then used to explore aspects of vulnerability in their reindeerherding livelihood.A full understanding of vulnerability in any of the systems examined is beyond the scope of this chapter. Such an analysis would require in-depth fieldwork and extensive participation of arctic residents (e.g., in planning and carrying out the assessment, in determining the stresses of greatest concern to them, in generating and disseminating results, etc.).The initial phase of work presented here illustrates, however, preliminary results of a conceptual and methodological approach to vulnerability analysis.These results offer insights into: the vulnerability of particular arctic human–environment systems to multiple human and environmental changes, how human and environmental conditions and behavior might attenuate or amplify these changes and their consequences, and what options exist to reduce vulnerability[15].

Examples used in this chapter focus on the experiences and likely future prospects for indigenous communities and the environments upon which they depend. Although non-indigenous populations far outnumber indigenous peoples in the Arctic, there are a number of reasons why a focus on indigenous livelihoods is particularly suited for initial analyses of interactions between climate and other factors that can contribute to the vulnerability of arctic residents. First, analyses of vulnerability require an understanding of human–environment interactions and their historical evolution. Such connections can be complex and difficult to discern. Indigenous ways of life, however, often offer ready insights into the ways in which people depend upon and adapt to their surroundings. Many indigenous peoples, for example, have livelihoods based partly or wholly on subsistence activities that entail strong human–environment relationships that have persisted through many generations. These activities include hunting, fishing, herding, and/or gathering, and their execution requires knowledge about the highly variable arctic environment, how to interact and cope with it, and how earlier generations adapted to past changes[16]. Second, analyses of vulnerability have the greatest potential for informing decisions regarding adaptation and mitigation when there is a distinct possibility of social and environmental loss. Arguably, the potential for such loss is particularly acute in indigenous arctic communities as they encounter varied forms of environmental and social change.

Rates of climate changes projected for some regions of the Arctic exceed, however, those likely to have been experienced during multiple past human generations. Thus, the resiliencies sufficient during the past may or may not suffice in the future. Moreover, while not all forms of likely future change portend likely negative consequences, climate change, UV radiation exposure, transboundary air pollution, and economic globalization, singly and in combination have the potential to adversely affect long-standing indigenous cultural practices, livelihoods, economies, and more. It is also noteworthy that among arctic residents a much larger body of literature is available on the resilience of indigenous peoples’ livelihoods in response to climate change and in the context of multiple stressors.

The prospect of climate change in the Arctic has now begun to seriously influence planning in this region. Over an even shorter period researchers have begun to explore the degree to which likely future climate change will interact with other factors in the broader realm of human–environment interactions. At this early stage in the development of methodologies to quantitatively assess the vulnerability of different aspects of the human–environment system, studies of indigenous arctic communities are timely. Studies of indigenous peoples in other areas can now provide a common context within which to test characterizations of human– environment systems and their interactions, and to advance integrative data collection and analytical methodologies. Notable among these approaches is the absolute necessity of co-generating knowledge of exposures, sensitivities, and resiliencies inherent in these systems by involving indigenous peoples at the earliest stages of research planning and analysis.

Analyses of indigenous communities can also yield insights into the lives and livelihoods of non-indigenous arctic residents. However, without the same degree of historical and cultural ties to localities and ways of life, and with greater freedom to relocate, perhaps to an area outside the Arctic, non-indigenous residents will be vulnerable to likely future change in the Arctic in different ways. Eventually, suites of case studies focused on indigenous peoples and non-indigenous peoples and their environments will form useful comparative analyses from which questions regarding comparative resiliencies and ultimately their relative vulnerabilities can be assessed.


Chapter 17: Climate Change in the Context of Multiple Stressors and Resilience
17.1. Introduction
17.2. Conceptual approaches to vulnerability assessments
    17.2.1. A framework for analyzing vulnerability
    17.2.2. Focusing on interactive changes and stresses in the Arctic
    17.2.3. Identifying coping and adaptation strategies
17.3. Methods and models for vulnerability analysis
17.4. Understanding and assessing vulnerabilities through case studies
    17.4.1. Candidate vulnerability case studies
    17.4.2. A more advanced vulnerability case study
17.5. Insights gained and implications for future vulnerability assessments



  1. ^NRC, 1999. Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability. National Research Council, National Academy Press,Washington, DC.
  2. ^ Kasperson, J.X. and R.E. Kasperson, 2001. SEI Risk and Vulnerability Programme Report. 2001–01, Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm.
  3. ^IPCC, 2001b. Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability:The Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Scientific Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.
  4. ^ IPCC, 2001b, Op. cit.; see also Chapters 7 and 8
  5. ^AMAP, 1998.AMAP Assessment Report: Arctic Pollution Issues. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, Oslo, Norway, xii+859p.
  6. ^AMAP, 1998, Op. cit.
    -- AMAP, 2002. Arctic Pollution 2002: Persistent Organic Pollutants, Heavy Metals, Radioactivity, Human Health, Changing Pathways. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, Oslo, Norway. xii+112p.
  7. ^AMAP, 2003.AMAP Assessment 2002: Human Health in the Arctic. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, Oslo, Norway. xiv+137p.;
    --  IPCC, 2001b, Op. cit.
  8. ^ De Fabo, E. and L.O. Björn, 2000. Ozone depletion and UV-B radiation. In: M. Nuttall and T.V. Callaghan (eds.). The Arctic Environment, People, Policy, pp. 555–573. Harwood Academic Publishers.
  9. ^ see especially Chapters 1, 3, 7, 11, 12, 13;
    --  Freeman, M.M.R. (ed.), 2000. Endangered Peoples of the Arctic: Struggles to Survive and Thrive. Greenwood Press.;
    --  Stenbaek, M., 1987. Forty years of cultural change among the Inuit in Alaska, Canada and Greenland: some reflections. Arctic, 40:300–309.
  10. ^ Cohen, S.J. (ed.), 1997. Mackenzie Basin Study (MBIS) Final Report. Environment Canada, 372p.
  11. ^ Lange, M. and BASIS Consortium, 2003.The Barents Sea Impact Study (BASIS): methodology and first results. Continental Shelf Research, 23:1673–1684.
  12. ^ Freeman, 2000, Op. cit.;
    Stenbaek, 1987, Op. cit.;
    Chapters 1, 3, 11, 12, 13
  13. ^Turner, B.L., II, R.E. Kasperson, P. Matson, J.J. McCarthy, R.W. Corell, L. Christensen, N. Eckley, J.X. Kasperson, A. Luers, M.L. Martello, C. Polsky, A. Pulsipher and A. Schiller, 2003a. A Framework for Vulnerability Analysis in Sustainability Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100:8074–8079.
  14. ^ e.g., NRC, 1999, Op. cit.
  15. ^ see Turner et al., 2003a, Op. cit.
  16. ^ Krupnik, I. and D. Jolly (eds.), 2002.The Earth Is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations Of Arctic Environmental Change. Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, Fairbanks.






Committee, I. (2012). Introduction to Climate Change in the Arctic in the Context of Multiple Stressors and Resilience. Retrieved from


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