Indicator #21
Changes in protected areas
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Tom Barry, CAFF International Secretariat, Akureyri, Iceland.
Donald McLennan, Parks Canada Agency, Ottawa, Canada.


Protected areas have long been viewed as a key element for maintaining and conserving Arctic biodiversity and the functioning landscapes upon which species depend. Arctic protected areas have been established in strategically important and representative areas, helping to maintain crucial ecological features, e.g., caribou migration and calving areas, shorebird and waterfowl staging and nesting sites, seabird colonies, and critical components of marine mammal habitats.

Protected areas in the Arctic are also important for global biodiversity conservation. The majority of Arctic species use the region seasonally, with Arctic habitats providing resources for the maintenance of many bird and mammal species that migrate to areas around the world. The importance of this role is increasing due to climate-driven ecological change, industrial development, and resource exploitation. International conventions, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and organizations, such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), address the issue of protected areas worldwide but do not have any Arcticspecific programs. This gap highlights the need to develop a circumpolar protected areas strategy for the Arctic that would build on ongoing national initiatives, e.g., marine protected areas planning, to permit more effective conservation planning in a global context.

In many Arctic countries, protected areas are co-managed with indigenous and local peoples, through which access to resources is maintained and knowledge is shared. Traditional knowledge provided through co-management allows indigenous perspectives to contribute to protected areas management. By maintaining ecological integrity, protected areas can help maintain the spiritual and traditional lifestyles of Arctic Indigenous peoples.

Population/ecosystem status and trends1

3The first protected areas dataset for the Arctic was created by CAFF in 1994 and was last updated in 2004 [1]2. The data presented in this chapter represent the first results of the 2009 update, and were officially submitted by each of the Arctic Council countries.

The first protected areas in the Arctic were established in Sweden and Alaska at the beginning of the 20th century. The area under protection remained low until the 1970s when it began to increase significantly with additions of large areas such as the Greenland National Park (Figure 21.1). By 1980, 5.6% of the Arctic was classified under some degree of protection. This has steadily increased until today where 11% of the Arctic3, about 3.5 million km2, has protected status in 1127 protected areas (Figure 21.2).

Of course, the nature of protection and governance of these areas varies throughout the circumpolar region, and there are varying levels of protection within countries. In addition, over 40% of Arctic protected areas have a coastal component but for the majority of these areas it is not possible at present to determine the extent to which they incorporate the adjacent marine environment.



Data (shapefile) for CAFF boundary can be downloaded from 


Concerns for the future

4Rapid climate change has become the primary challenge to the usefulness of protected areas as a conservation tool, i.e., how will ecosystems respond to rapid change, are existing protected area networks sufficient, and how should future protected areas be selected? The establishment of protected areas has historically been based on either the protection of unique habitats or the concept of ecological representativity, whereby important areas that are sufficiently large and contain targeted components of ecological biomes are selected for protection. However, the accelerating rate of climate-driven change in Arctic ecosystems complicates this approach to protected areas, and we may find that what we desire to protect today is altered or lost through climate change (e.g., due to the northward shift of species, greening of the Arctic, invasive species, and so on). This point emphasizes the importance of environmental conservation not only within protected areas but also beyond their boundaries. The condition of unprotected areas becomes critical as corridors of connectivity that facilitate species migrations.

Nowhere is this more important than in Arctic marine ecosystems where existing protection is low compared to terrestrial areas. Recent findings show that Arctic sea ice is disappearing much more rapidly than predictions made by the most pessimistic models [3]. This will fundamentally alter the oceanography and productivity of Arctic marine ecosystems. It will result in population level effects on Arctic marine mammals, fish, benthic communities, and seabirds in ways we are only beginning to understand [4, 5].

The phenology and distribution of sea ice in the Arctic also has profound effects on Arctic coastal and terrestrial ecosystems, and can be expected to exacerbate ongoing climate-driven change in these areas [4–6]. Increased rates of coastal erosion and unpredictable changes in other coastal processes can be expected to change in ways that are poorly understood. These will result in largely unpredictable effects on freshwater, wetland, and tundra biota, both inside and outside of Arctic protected areas. Many fish and marine mammals are migratory and the current approach of area protection may not be the most effective during certain times of the year, e.g., spawning.

The CBD [7] has recognized the importance of the conservation and sustainable use of the biodiversity of wetlands – and peatlands in particular – in addressing climate change. However, these complex ecosystems are vulnerable to climate-driven ecological change, industrial development, and resource exploitation. These factors are contributing to permafrost thawing, increased carbon emissions, and changes in hydrology and ecological processes, and are causing landscape level change and losses in key ecosystem services [8]. These ecological changes will further complicate efforts to develop an effective protected areas network.

All these factors make it difficult to assess the representativity and potential effectiveness of protected areas. They also make the development of an effective strategy for establishing new areas challenging. What is clear, however, is that no one country can ensure adequate protection for all critical stages in the life cycles of Arctic biota. An effective network of Arctic protected areas requires a coordinated circumpolar approach that needs to be linked with other jurisdictions globally, and coordinated with Indigenous Peoples across the Arctic.

1. Note on information sources: Data used to compile the information for this analysis came from each of the representatives of the Arctic Council countries to CAFF.
2. Subsequent to this, UNEP’s World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) has stored data on Arctic protected areas, although the Arctic data is of variable quality.
3. The Arctic, as defined by the CAFF boundary, covers an area of over 32 million km2.