IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis


16th May, 2023 Environment

Disclaimer: Copyright infringement not intended.


  • With rising global temperatures, thawing permafrost is likely to destabilise thousands of industrial sites and linked contaminated areas in the Arctic, which could result in the spread of toxic substances across the region, according to a new study.


  • The Arctic, an uninhabited and untouched region, is dotted with countless industrial facilities such as oilfields and pipelines, mines and military bases.
  • All this infrastructure is built on permafrost, which was once believed to be perennially stable and reliable.
  • The toxic waste from these industrial facilities has been buried in the permafrost, on the assumption that it would stay locked away permanently.
  • But danger looms as the planet continues to heat up.
  • As the Arctic is getting warmer nearly four times as fast as the rest of the planet due to climate change, permafrost is thawing rapidly, which could destabilise not only the industrial sites but also the contaminated areas.
  • And once the destabilisation takes place, toxic substances would be unleashed across the region, threatening numerous species living there and the health of people who depend on them.

What is permafrost?

  • Permafrost is essentially any ground that stays frozen — 0 degree Celsius or lower — for at least two years straight.
  • These permanently frozen grounds are often found in Arctic regions such as Greenland, Alaska (the United States), Canada, Russia and Eastern Europe.
  • It is composed of “a combination of soil, rocks and sand that are held together by ice. The soil and ice in permafrost stay frozen all year long.”
  • However, although the ground remains perennially frozen, permafrost regions aren’t always covered with snow.

About The Arctic

  • It is a polar region located at the northernmost part of Earth.
  • The Arctic consists of the Arctic Ocean, adjacent seas, and parts of Canada (Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut), Danish Realm (Greenland), northern Finland (Lapland), Iceland, northern Norway (Finnmark and Svalbard), Russia (Murmansk, Siberia, Nenets Okrug, Novaya Zemlya), northernmost Sweden and the United States (Alaska).
  • Land within the Arctic region has seasonally varying snow and ice cover, with predominantly treeless permafrost (permanently frozen underground ice) containing tundra.
  • Arctic seas contain seasonal sea ice in many places.
  • Life in the Arctic includes zooplankton and phytoplankton, fish and marine mammals, birds, land animals, plants and human societies.
  • Arctic land is bordered by the subarctic.


  • The word Arctic comes from the Greek word arktikos, "near the Bear, northern" and from the word arktos meaning bear.
  • The name refers either to the constellation Ursa Major, the "Great Bear", which is prominent in the northern portion of the celestial sphere, or to the constellation Ursa Minor, the "Little Bear", which contains the celestial north pole.


  • The Arctic is characterized by cold winters and cool summers.
  • Its precipitation mostly comes in the form of snow and is low, with most of the area receiving less than 50 cm.
  • Average winter temperatures can go as low as −40 °C, and the coldest recorded temperature is approximately −68 °C.
  • The Arctic is affected by current global warming, leading to Arctic sea ice shrinkage, diminished ice in the Greenland ice sheet, and Arctic methane release as the permafrost thaws.
  • The melting of Greenland's ice sheet is linked to polar amplification.

Flora and fauna

  • Arctic vegetation is composed of plants such as dwarf shrubs, graminoids, herbs, lichens, and mosses, which all grow relatively close to the ground, forming tundra.
  • In the coldest parts of the Arctic, much of the ground is bare; non-vascular plants such as lichens and mosses predominate, along with a few scattered grasses and forbs (like the Arctic poppy).
  • Herbivores on the tundra include the Arctic hare, lemming, muskox, and caribou. They are preyed on by the snowy owl, Arctic fox, Grizzly bear, and Arctic wolf.
  • The polar bear is also a predator, though it prefers to hunt for marine life from the ice.
  • Marine mammals include seals, walrus, and several species of cetacean—baleen whales and also narwhals, orcas, and belugas.
  • An excellent and famous example of a ring species exists and has been described around the Arctic Circle in the form of the Larus gulls.

Natural resources

  • The Arctic includes copious natural resources (oil, gas, minerals, fresh water, fish and, if the subarctic is included, forest) to which modern technology and the economic opening up of Russia have given significant new opportunities.
  • The Arctic also holds 1/5 of the Earth's water supply.

Indigenous population

  • The earliest inhabitants of North America's central and eastern Arctic are referred to as the Arctic small tool tradition (AST).
  • The Dorset culture refers to the next inhabitants of central and eastern Arctic.
  • Descendants of the Dorset culture, known as the Sadlermiut, survived until the beginning of the 20th century.
  • The Inuit, present-day Arctic inhabitants and descendants of Thule culture, have migrated throughout the Arctic regions of Eastern Russia, the United States, Canada, and Greenland.

International cooperation and politics

  • The eight Arctic nations (Canada, Kingdom of Denmark [Greenland & The Faroe Islands], Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and USA) are all members of the Arctic Council, as are organizations representing six indigenous populations.
    • The council operates on consensus basis, mostly dealing with environmental treaties and not addressing boundary or resource disputes.
  • Arctic shipping is subject to some regulatory control through the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters, adopted by the International Maritime Organization on 1 January 2017 and applies to all ships in Arctic waters over 500 tonnes.
  • No country owns the geographic North Pole or the region of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it.
  • The surrounding six Arctic states that border the Arctic Ocean—Canada, Kingdom of Denmark (with Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Russia, and the United States—are limited to a 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off their coasts.
  • Two Arctic states (Finland and Sweden) do not have direct access to the Arctic Ocean.


  • Due to the prevailing worldwide sea and air currents, the Arctic area is the fallout region for long-range transport pollutants, and in some places the concentrations exceed the levels of densely populated urban areas.
  • An example of this is the phenomenon of Arctic haze, which is commonly blamed on long-range pollutants.
  • Another example is with the bioaccumulation of PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls) in Arctic wildlife and people.

Climate change

  • The Arctic has climate change rates that are amongst the highest in the world.
  • The effects of global warming in the Arctic include rising temperatures, loss of sea ice, and melting of the Greenland ice sheet.
  • Potential methane release from the region, especially through the thawing of permafrost and methane clathrates, is also a concern.
  • The Arctic is especially vulnerable to the effects of any climate change, as has become apparent with the reduction of sea ice in recent years.
  • The melting of the ice is making the Northwest Passage, the shipping routes through the northernmost latitudes, more navigable, raising the possibility that the Arctic region will become a prime trade route.
  • In addition, it is believed that the Arctic seabed may contain substantial oil fields which may become accessible if the ice covering them melts.
  • These factors have led to recent international debates as to which nations can claim sovereignty or ownership over the waters of the Arctic.


Permafrost: https://www.iasgyan.in/daily-current-affairs/permafrost-18


Q) Which of the following statements with reference to Arctic is/are incorrect?

1. No country owns the geographic North Pole or the region of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it.

2. Finland and Sweden do not have direct access to the Arctic Ocean.

  1. 1 only
  2. 2 only
  3. Both 1 and 2
  4. Neither 1 nor 2

Correct Answer: 4